Principle three protection anonymity and confidentiality
Protecting the anonymity and confidentiality of research participants is another practical component of research ethics. After all, participants will typically only be willing to volunteer information, especially information of a private or sensitive nature, if the researcher agrees to hold such information in confidence. Whilst it is possible that research participants may be hurt in some way if the data collection methods used are somehow insensitive, there is perhaps a greater danger that harm can be caused once data has been collected. This occurs when data is not treated confidentially, whether in terms of the storage of data, its analysis, or during the publication process. However, this does not mean that all data collected from research participants need to be kept confidential or anonymous. It may be possible to disclose the identity and views of individuals at various stages of the research process. Nonetheless, permissions should be sought before such confidential information is disclosed.
An alternative is to remove identifiers or provide proxies when writing up. However, such stripping of identifiable information may not always be possible to anticipate at the outset of your dissertation when thinking about issues of research ethics. This is not only a consideration for dissertations following a qualitative research design but also a quantitative research design.
Research strategy and research ethics
Research ethics is not a one size fits all approach. The research strategy that you choose to guide your dissertation determines the approach that you should take towards research ethics. Even though all dissertation research at the undergraduate and master's level should adhere to the basic ethical principles of doing good and doing no harm, this does not mean that the approach you take towards research ethics will be the same as other students. Rather, the approach to research ethics that you adopt in your dissertation should be consistent with your chosen research strategy. Since your research strategy consists of several components, the approach you adopt should reflect each of these components.
Research ethics are based on three fundamental principles:
1. Respect for Persons This principle incorporates two elements that deal with respecting people regarding research:
People should be treated as autonomous
The term autonomous means that a person can make his or her own decisions about what to do and what to agree to. Researchers must respect that individuals should make their own informed decisions about whether to participate in research. To treat people as autonomous, individuals must be provided with complete information about a study and decide on their own whether to enrol. People with diminished autonomy should be protected. Some people in society may not have the capacity to make fully informed decisions about what they do or what happens to them. This could include young children, people who are very ill, or those with mental disabilities. In such cases, these people should be protected and only be included in research under specific circumstances, since they cannot make a truly informed decision on their own.
2. Beneficence The definition of beneficence is an action that is done for the benefit of others. This principle states that research should:
Do no harm
The purpose of health research is to discover new information that would be helpful to society. The purpose of research should never be to hurt anyone or find out information at the expense of other people. Maximize benefits for participants and minimize risks for participants. The purpose of much research involving humans is to show whether a drug is safe and effective. This means participants may be exposed to some harms or risks. Researchers are obligated to do their best to minimize those possible risks and to maximize the benefits for participants.
This principle deals with the concept of fairness. Researchers designing trials should consider what is fair in terms of recruitment of participants and choice of location to conduct a trial. This encompasses issues related to who benefits from research and who bears the risks of research. It provides the framework for thinking about these decisions in ways that are fair and equitable. People who are included in research should not be included merely because they are a population that is easy to access, available, or perhaps vulnerable and less able to decline to participate.
An experimental strategy that is likely to be used by many types of people should be tested in the very populations of people who are likely to use it, to ensure that it is safe, effective, and acceptable for all of the potential users. For example, experimental treatments that are intended for use in the general population must be studied not only on men but on enough women to ensure that they are also safe and effective for women. The principle of justice also indicates that questions being asked in trials should be of relevance to the communities participating in the study.