Ethics in research


Researchers are not always tactful or candid with subjects when they do their studies. For instance, questions in field surveys may be perceived as embarrassing by respondents or as an invasion of privacy. Also, researchers in laboratory studies have been known to deceive participants about the true purpose of their experiment “because they felt deception was necessary to get honest responses.�

The “learning experiments� conducted by Stanley Milgram, which were conducted more than 30 years ago, have been widely criticized by psychologists on ethical grounds. He lied subjects, telling them his study was investigating learning, when , in fact, he was concerned with obedience The shock machine he used was a fake. Even the “learner� was an accomplice of Milgram’s who had been trained to act as if he were hurt and in pain. Yet ethical lapses continue.

For instance, in 2001, a professor of organizational behavior at Delhi University sent out a common letter on university letterhead to 240 New Delhi City restaurants in which he detailed how he had eaten at this restaurant with his wife in celebration of their wedding anniversary, how he had gotten food poisoning, and that he had spent the night in his bathroom throwing up. The letter closed with: “Although it is not my intention to file any reports with the Consumer Court or the Department of Health, I want you to understand what I went through in anticipation that you will respond accordingly. I await your response. �

The fictitious letter was part of the professor’s study to determine how restaurants responded to complaints. But it created culinary chaos among many of the restaurant owners, managers, and chefs as they reviewed menus and products deliveries for possibly spoiled food, and questioned kitchen workers about possible lapses. A follow-up letter of apology from the University for “an Error in judgment by junior faculty members� did little to offset the distress it created for those affected.

As professional association like the American Psychological Association, the American Sociological Association, and the Academy of Management, ICSSR, Ministry of Science and Technology, and other research funding organizations have

published formal guidelines for the conduct of research. On one side are those who argue that strict ethical controls can damage the scientific validity of an experiment and cripple future research.

Deception, for example, is often necessary to avoid contaminating results. Moreover, proponents of minimizing ethical controls note that few subjects have been appreciably harmed by deceptive experiments. Even in Milgram’s highly manipulative experiment, only 1.3 % of the subjects reported negative feelings about their experience. The other side of this debate focuses on the rights of participants. Those favoring strict ethical controls argue that no procedure should ever be emotionally or physically distressing to subjects, and that, as professionals, researchers are obliged to be completely honest with their subjects and to protect the subjects’ privacy at all costs.

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