Ethics in Educational Research
As we begin to think about the topic of ethics and research, what are the main differences between ethical research and unethical research? Can you think of any examples of unethical research? On what basis would you consider the research unethical?
We do not have to do to look too far before we come across examples of unethical research. Read through the examples of unethical research found below (using the provided links and any additional sources, if desired) and evaluate which aspects of each study made the research unethical.
• Several examples are from World War 2 and the Nazi regime. As you read through the information, pay particular attention to the ethics (or lack thereof) of the following experiments: (1) freezing experiments, (2) bone, muscle and nerve transplantation experiments, (3) malaria experiments, and (4) sea water experiments.
• The Tuskegee Syphillis Study (1932-1972).
• A more recent example of Dr Wakefield from the UK.
As a result of the unethical research conducted during World War 2, the Nuremberg Code of Conduct was established in 1947. This Code of Conduct comprises a list of guidelines for researchers to ensure ethical research. The code consists of ten main guidelines, which are reproduced below (the related ethical principle is identified in bold; Vollmann & Winnau, 1996, p. 1448):
1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, overreaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision [informed consent]. This latter element requires that before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the experimental subject there should be made known to him the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonably to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person which may possibly come from his participation in the experiment.?The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs, or engages in the experiment. It is a personal duty and responsibility, which may not be delegated to another with impunity.
2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature [research merit].
3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results justify the performance of the experiment [research merit].
4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury [harm minimisation].
5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects [research merit and harm minimisation].
6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment [research merit].
7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability or death [harm minimisation].
8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment [research merit].
9. During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible [voluntary consent].
10. During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill and careful judgment required of him, that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject [harm minimisation].
Since 1947 a number of other codes have been written. Within Australia, the Australian Research Council (ARC) and National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) are two national organisations that govern ethical approval of research. Further, within the education sector, the Department of Education and Communities also have strict guidelines about conducting ethical research. These will be discussed in detail in sections 3 and 4.
The National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research outlines core ethical principles that need to be considered in the conduct of all research, namely (i) research merit and integrity, (ii) justice, (iii) beneficence and (iv) respect. These also capture issues arising from the Nuremberg Code, including informed and voluntary consent, accurate reporting of research and harm minimisation.
Below are real-life examples that relate to some of these ethical considerations. Work your way through each of these and reflect upon which ethical principles apply and how these studies might have been modified (if possible) to meet current ethical guidelines.
1. Piltdown Man?
• Fragments of an unusual skull were found in a gravel pit near Piltdown, England in 1908.
• Thought to be the missing link that linked human evolution with apes.
• When tested it was found that the skull was around 50,000 years olds but the jawbone was only a few decades old.
2. Hitler diaries
• Claims that 62 volumes of Hitler’s handwritten diaries were recovered from a plane wreck and smuggled out of Germany by a memorabilia dealer.
• Published by Stern magazine in 1983.
• The content of the journals was dull and trivial.
• The whitener and fibres in the paper were of postwar manufacture.
• Most of the entries had been plagiarised from a book called Hitler’s Speeches and Proclamations.
3. Debendox and morning sickness
• William McBride warned about the dangers of the morning sickness drug Thalidomide in 1961.
• Two decade later, in 1982, McBride published a report about a morning-sickness drug called Debendox that, he claimed, clearly caused birth defects in rabbits.
• McBride had altered data in research carried out by assistants. The results actually showed Debendox had no ill effects.
• McBride was found guilty of scientific fraud in 1993 by a medical tribunal.
4. Obedience to authority – Part 1
• Milgram told volunteers the purpose of his experiment was to investigate the effects of punishment on learning behaviours.
• The ‘teacher’ was instructed to read a list of two word pairs and ask the ‘learner’ to read them back. If the answer was incorrect the ‘teacher’ was supposed to shock the ‘learner’ starting at 15 volts, progressing from a slight shock to severe shock (lethal dose).
What was really going on? Find Milgram’s account below, as well as footage from the original and subsequently replicated experiments:
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation (Milgram, 1974).
5. Obedience to authority – Part 2
• Zimbardo set up a mock ‘prison’ in the basement of Stanford University and randomly assigned volunteers to be either guards or prisoners
• Without giving much direction, Zimbardo was interested in the roles that people would take on and how far they would take them
What is socially responsible research? Read through the real-life examples below of proposed dissertations. Would you consider this type of research to be socially responsible? Or is Pseudoscience?
• The quality of “discourse” that takes place in cafes and coffee shops located inside bookstores.
• How people learn about opportunities to take SCUBA diving lessons and what motivates them to register for such courses.
• The desirability, and otherwise, of the blonde through history.
• The ‘neospirutalism’ of Wonder Woman and Zena Warrior Princess.
• The portrayal of food in film and other cultural text.
• The politics of technology, gender and the mountain bike.
• The divorce of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise (for research the student read Women’s Weekly, New Idea, Woman’s Day, and Who Weekly among other publications).
Requirements for Research
Irrespective of workplace, whether it be a school or a hospital, research must be conducted in an ethical manner. Within the Australian research environment, prior to the commencement of any research an ethics committee must approve the proposed research. Ethics committees usually involve a number of different people, including specialists in the field of interest and lay people from the community. For example, each Australian Human ethics committee consists of at least seven members (male and female). Of these seven people one is a chairman, at least two are lay people (meaning that that they have no affiliation with the institution or organisation), at least one is a lawyer, one is from a religious background and one is a professional in the area. The role of this group is to review each ethics application and ensure that the proposed research meets ethical requirements in its design and plan for conduct.
Before embarking on an ethics application, know that these applications are extremely cumbersome forms. Researchers are required to provide a great deal of precise detail about the justification, design and conduct of the research that is proposed. For example, the NSW Department of Education and Communities ethics application involves 29 sections. Some of these sections include:
• Who will be conducting the research?
• What is the purpose of the research?
• How will participants be contacted?
• How is the project funded?
• How will the data be kept confidential?
• How will the data be stored?
• When and where will the research take place?
• Does the research add to the field of education?
• What level of disruption will occur as a result of the research?
• How will the results be disseminated?
• What are the benefits of the research to education?
• Examples of information sheets and consent forms.
Why are such cumbersome forms needed prior to research with an educational settings? Here are some reasons why an ethical review is so important (can you think of others):
• It acts as an important quality check;
• It ensures your research design is well considered and is appropriate for addressing your research question;
• It ensure harms are minimised (or eliminated) and participants are provided with the opportunity to give ‘voluntary, informed consent’; and
• It provides an opportunity for you to gain feedback on your research from experts and peers.
Here are links to the UOW ethics site and the NSW DEC ethics site. Spend some time looking at the different ethics forms and see what information is required.
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