Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Ethics and the research process


Ethics Research
Ethics and the research process

Most mass media research involves observations of human beings—asking them questions or examining what they have done. However, in this probing process the researcher must ensure that the rights of the participants are not violated. 
This concern for rights requires a consideration of ethics: distinguishing right from wrong and proper from improper. Unfortunately, there are no universal definitions for these terms. Instead, several guidelines, broad generalizations, and suggestions have been endorsed or at least tacitly accepted by most in the research profession. These guidelines do not provide an answer to every ethical question that may arise, but they can help make researchers more sensitive to the issues.

Before discussing these specific guidelines, let’s pose some hypothetical research situations involving ethics.

• A researcher at a large university distributes questionnaires to the students in an introductory mass media course and tells them that if they do not complete the forms, they will lose points toward their grade in the course.
• A researcher is conducting a mail survey about downloading pornography from the Internet. The questionnaire states that the responses will be anonymous.

However, unknown to the respondents, each return envelope is marked with a code that enables the researcher to identify the sender.

• A researcher creates a false identity on Facebook and uses it to gather information about the communication behaviors of dozens of college students without the students’ knowledge.
• A researcher shows one group of children a violent television show and another group a nonviolent programAfterward, the children are sent to a public playground, where they are told to play with the children who are already there. The researcher records each instance of violent behavior exhibited by the young subjects.
• Subjects in an experiment are told to submit a sample of their news writing to an executive of a large newspaper and are led to believe that whoever submits the best work will be offered a job at the paper. In fact, the “executive” is a confederate in the experiment and severely criticizes everyone’s work.
The subjects then rate their own selfesteem. They are never told about the deception. These examples of ethically flawed study designs should be kept in mind while you read the following guidelines to ethics in mass media research.


Ethical behavior is the right thing to do. The best reason to behave ethically is the personal knowledge that you have acted in a morally appropriate manner. In addition, there are other cogent reasons that argue for ethical behavior. Unethical behavior may have an adverse effect on research participants. Just one experience with an ethically questionable research project may completely alienate a respondent. A person who was improperly deceived into thinking that he or she was being evaluated for a job at a newspaper when it was all just an experiment might not be so willing to participate in another study. Since mass communication research depends on the continued goodwill and cooperation of respondents, it is important to shield them from unethical research practices.

Moreover, unethical research practices reflect poorly on the profession and mayresult in an increase in negative public opinion. Many readers have probably heard about the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study in which impoverished African American men suffering from syphilis were studied without their consent and left untreated so that researchers could study the progress of the disease (see Jones, 1981, for a complete description). The distrust and suspicion engendered by this experiment in the African American community have yet to subside and have been cited as a factor in the rise of some conspiracy theories about the spread of AIDS (Thomas & Quinn, 1981). It is fortunate that the mass communication research community has not had an ethical lapse of this magnitude, but the Tuskegee experiment illustrates the harmful fallout that can result from an unethical research project.
Unethical research usually does not result from some sinister motivation. Instead, it generally comes from pressure on researchers to cut corners in an attempt to publish an article or gain prestige or impress other colleagues. Nonetheless, it is behavior that is potentially serious and little tolerated within the community of mass media scholars. like to see universally implemented. In other words, a person should act in a way that he or she wants all others to act. Note that in many ways Kant’s thinking parallels what we might call the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. A mass media researcher, for example, might develop a categorical imperative about deception. Deception is something that a researcher does not want to see universally practiced by all; nor does the researcher wish to be deceived. Therefore, deception is something that should not be used in research, no matter what the benefits and no matter what the circumstances. The teleological, or balancing, theory is best exemplified by what philosopher John Stuart Mill called utilitarianism. In this theory, the good that may come from an action is weighed against or balanced against the possible harm. The individual then acts in a way that maximizes good and minimizes harm. In other words, the ultimate test for determining the rightness of some behavior depends on the outcomes that result from this behavior. The end may justify the means.
As will be noted, most Institutional Review Boards at colleges and universities endorse this principle when they examine research proposals for ethical compliance. A mass media researcher who follows the utilitarian approach must balance the good that will come from a research project against its possible negative effects. In this situation, a researcher might decide it is appropriate to use deception in an experiment if the positive benefits of the knowledge obtained outweigh the possible harmful effects of deceiving the subjects. One difficulty with this approach is that it is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to anticipate all of the harm that might ensue from a given research design. Note that a researcher might use a different course of action depending upon which ethical theory is used as a guide.


General ethical principles are difficult to construct in the research area. However, there are at least four relevant principles. First is the principle of autonomy, or self determination, which has its roots in the categorical imperative. Denying autonomy is not something that a researcher wishes to see universally practiced. Basic to this concept is the demand that the researcher respects the rights, values, and decisions of other people. The reasons for a person’s action should be respected and the actions not interfered with. This principle is exemplified by the use of informed consent in the research procedure. A second ethical principle important to social science research is nonmaleficence. In short, it is wrong to intentionally inflict harm on another. A third ethical principle— beneficence—is usually considered in tandem with nonmaleficence. Beneficence stipulates apositive obligation to remove existing harms and to confer benefits on others. These two principles operate together, and often the researcher must weigh the harmful risks of research against its possible benefits (for example, increased knowledge or a refined theory). Note how the utilitarian theory relates to these principles.
A fourth ethical principle, the principle of justice, is related to both deontological and teleological theories of ethics. At its general level, this principle holds that people who are equal in relevant respects should be treated equally. In the research context, this principle should be applied when new programs or policies are being evaluated. The positive results of such research should be shared with all. It would be unethical, for example, to deny the benefit of a new teaching procedure to children because they were originally chosen to be in the control group rather than in the group that received the experimental procedure. Benefits should be shared with all who are qualified. Frey, Botan, and Kreps (2000) offer the following summary of moral principles commonly advocated by researchers:

1. Provide the people being studied with free choice.
2. Protect their right to privacy.
3. Benefit them, not harm them.
4. Treat them with respect.

It is clear that mass media researchers must follow some set of rules to meet their ethical obligations to their subjects and respondents. Cook (1976), discussing thelaboratory approach, offers one such code of behavior that represents norms in the field:

• Do not involve people in research without their knowledge or consent.
• Do not coerce people to participate.
• Do not withhold from the participant the true nature of the research.
• Do not actively lie to the participant about the nature of the research.
• Do not lead the participant to commit acts that diminish his or her self-respect. • Do not violate the right to selfdetermination.
• Do not expose the participant to physical or mental stress.
• Do not invade the privacy of the participant.
• Do not withhold benefits from participants in control groups.
• Do not fail to treat research participants fairly and to show them consideration and respect.


The following subsections discuss some of the common areas where mass media researchers might encounter ethical dilemmas.

Voluntary Participation and Informed Consent

Voluntary participation is not a pressing ethical issue in mail and telephone surveys because respondents are free to hang upthe phone or to throw away the questionnaire. Nonetheless, a researcher should not attempt to induce subjects to participate by misrepresenting the organization sponsoring the research or by exaggerating its purpose or importance. For example, telephone interviewers should not be instructed to identify themselves as representatives of the “Department of Information” to mislead people into thinking the survey is government- sponsored. Likewise, mail questionnaires should not be constructed to mimic census forms, tax returns, Social Security questionnaires, or other official government forms.

Concealment and Deception

Concealment and deception are encountered most frequently in experimental research. Concealment is withholding certain information from the subjects; deception is deliberately providing false information. Both practices raise ethical problems. The difficulty in obtaining consent has already been mentioned. A second problem derives from the general feeling that it is wrong for experimenters to lie to or otherwise deceive subjects.

 Protection of Privacy

The problem of protecting the privacy of participants arises more often in field observation and survey research than in laboratory studies. In field studies, observers may study people in public places without their knowledge (for example, individuals watching TV at an airport lounge). The more public the place, the less a person has an expectation of privacy and the fewer ethical problems are encountered. However, there are some public situations that present ethical concerns. Protection of Privacy The problem of protecting the privacy of participants arises more often in field observation and survey research than in laboratory studies. In field studies, observers may study people in public places without their knowledge (for example, individuals watching TV at an airport lounge). The more public the place, the less a person has an expectation of privacy and the fewer ethical problems are encountered. However, there are some public situations that present ethical concerns. Is it ethical, for example, for a researcher to pretend to browse in a video rental store when in fact the researcher is observing who rents pornographic videos? What about eavesdropping on people’s dinner conversations to determine how often news topics are discussed? To minimize ethical problems, a researcher should violate privacy only to the minimum degree needed to gather the data.

Federal Regulations Concerning Research

In 1971, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) drafted rules for obtaining informed consent from research participants, which included full documentation of informed consent procedures. In addition, the government set up a system of institutional review boards (IRBs) to safeguard the rights of human subjects. In 2008, there were more than 800 IRBs at medical schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, and other institutions.

Ethics in Data Analysis and Reporting

Researchers are responsible for maintaining professional standards in analyzing and reporting their data. The ethical guidelines in this area are less controversial and more clear-cut. In 2000, the U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy identified three areas of research misconduct: fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism. One cardinal rule is that researchers have a moral and ethical obligation to refrain from tampering with data:
Questionnaire responses and experimental observations may not be fabricated, altered, or discarded. Similarly, researchers are expected to exercise reasonable care in processing the data to guard against needless errors that might affect the results.
Another universal ethical principle is that authors should not plagiarize. The work of someone else should not be reproduced without giving proper credit to the original author. Somewhat related, only those individuals who contribute significantly to a research project should be given authorship credit. This last statement addresses the problem of piggybacking, when a subordinate is pressured by someone in authority to include the superior’s name on a manuscript even though the superior had little input into the finished product. The definition of a “significant contribution” might be fuzzy at times; generally, however, to be listed as an author, a person should play a major role in conceptualizing, analyzing, or writing the final document. Another problem that sometimes occurs involves the order of authorship of an article or a report. If there are two or more researchers involved, who gets listed as first author (“top billing”)? Ideally, all those involved should decide on the order of authorship at the beginning of a project, subject to later revision if changes in contribution should happen.
Usually, the first author is the one who made the biggest contribution to the work. Finally, special problems are involved when university faculty do research with students finally, all investigators are under an ethical obligation to draw conclusions from their data that are consistent with those data. Interpretations should not be stretched or distorted to fit a personal point of view or a favorite theory, or to gain or maintain a client’s favor. Nor should researchers attribute greater significance or credibility to their data than is justified. For example, when analyzing correlation coefficients obtained from a large sample, a researcher could achieve statistical significance with an r of only, for example, 0.10. It would be perfectly acceptable to report a statistically significant result in this case, but the investigator should also mention that the predictive utility of the correlation is not large and, specifically, that it explains only 1% of the total variation. In short, researchers should report their results with candor and honesty.