As the field of ethics addresses the philosophical foundations for standards of behavior and treatment of others when personal, social, and professional values conflict, social science researchers in general and communication researchers in particular are required to consider ethical implications of their work. Ethics is a process of deliberation that helps illuminate the dimensions and implications of our moral agency. It enables us to draw upon broad moral values to help question or justify a decision that will affect others. As professionals whose work both depends upon the willingness of others to cooperate and whose work can have direct or indirect bearing on the welfare of others, researchers are obligated to ensure their activities reflect commonly accepted ethical standards. Potential risks to subjects of research vary depending upon the nature of the questions explored and the methodologies used, but researchers are obligated as professionals to uphold fundamental values involving reduction of potential harm and respect due to all research participants as autonomous agents.
These and other fundamental values are rooted in the moral philosophy of Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, and others. These theorists proposed frameworks to assess the “good” or what constitutes “goodness.” Kant, for example, proposed a system of moral law that places a premium on our “absolute” duties to respect and promote the exercise of free will and the capacity for reason that separates humans from the animal kingdom. This capacity is what enables us to pursue “moral” lives as well as physical, emotional and intellectual ones. Failure to carry out this duty to respect others as autonomous, rational beings constitutes a failure of moral agency. Such precepts of moral philosophy provide the foundation for the subfield of the philosophy of ethics, which is concerned with how we might deliberate among conflicting options in a dilemma by applying moral principles.
Thus, the distinction between the related topics of moral philosophy and ethics is subtle but significant. While morality refers to a set of beliefs about what constitutes right and wrong, ethics, Frankena said, is the intellectual work that addresses “moral problems and moral judgment” (1963, 3). Ethical deliberation does not merely assert the “truth” of moral claims; it enables us to argue for the legitimate, reason-based application of moral claims in a given case. Ethics is the study of questions regarding what individuals might be obliged to do in certain situations, and how one might construct a compelling argument to place a premium on one value over another in a given situation when legitimate values, such as the pursuit of truth and the concern to minimize harm, come into conflict.
Ethics In Research
Numerous governmental and scientific organizations around the world have formally adopted ethical codes or guidelines to ensure researchers uphold key, broadly accepted ethical principles. Many calls for research ethics guidelines were responses to examples of research conduct that was perceived to be abusive, destructive, or unethical in some way. Charles Babbage (1970) wrote about the lack of ethics and honesty in British science in the nineteenth century.
The global scientific community was shocked by the horrors of Nazi research on human beings during the Nuremburg trials after World War II. In the US, from 1932 to 1972, medical treatment for syphilis was withheld from 600 poor African-American men in rural Alabama during the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. The ensuing outcry resulted in the establishment of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research in the 1970s. In 1979, the commission released the widely known Belmont Report, “Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research.”
The Belmont Report
The Belmont Report (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research 1979) put forward three basic principles that have become widely embraced as fundamental considerations that determine the ethical validity of any research effort: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.
Respect for persons: “[I]ndividuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and . . . persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection.” The report states: “To show lack of respect for an autonomous agent is to repudiate that person’s considered judgments, to deny an individual the freedom to act on those considered judgments, or to withhold information necessary to make a considered judgment, when there are no compelling reasons to do so.”
Beneficence: “Persons are treated in an ethical manner not only by respecting their decisions and protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their wellbeing. . . . In this document, beneficence is understood . . . as an obligation.” The report continues: “[I]nvestigators and members of their institutions are obliged to give forethought to the maximization of benefits and the reduction of risk that might occur from the research investigation.”
Justice: “An injustice occurs when some benefit to which a person is entitled is denied without good reason or when some burden is imposed unduly.” The report refers to the Tuskegee study specifically, stating, “These subjects were deprived of demonstrably effective treatment in order not to interrupt the project, long after such treatment became generally available.”
Many ethical codes and guidelines are explicit in the need for such standards to protect the credibility and public support of the research enterprise. Concern about and attention to research ethics has spawned a body of literature explicating how ethics should inform particular types of research as well as calling more generally for heightened ethical sensitivity on the part of scientists (see Kitchener 2000; Shamoo & Resnik 2003; Rollin 2006).
Research ethics and oversight boards have been formalized around the globe. In the US, the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Human Subjects Research is associated with institutional review boards, or IRBs, that are located within the administrations of universities and other research centers. IRBs are charged with approving research protocols for any projects involving federal funding, but most universities require IRB approval for all projects, funded or not. Other countries, most notably in eastern Europe, have national research ethics committees (RECs). Most European Union members have established a network of federal, state, and local research ethics review committees (Institute of Science and Ethics 2005), many similar to the IRB system. Several studies have found that emphasis on research ethics in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America is minimal, inconsistent or under development (Ezcurra 2001; World Health Organization 2002; Kirigia et al. 2005). China’s Ministry of Science and Technology has responded to a recent pattern of apparent scientific misconduct by pledging more aggressive enforcement of ethical standards (Yidong & Xin 2006).
Ethical Standards For Social Science
As social-science research and communications studies have expanded and matured, institutions and researcher networks have reconsidered the efficacy of research-ethics oversight systems that were originally established for work in medicine, bio-engineering, and other more clinical settings. European and North American organizations, such as the UK Economic and Social Research Council, the European Commission’s Information Society Technologies Programme, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics Special Working Committee in Canada, and the Association for the Accreditation of Human Research Protection Programs in the US, have promoted standards intended to address the range of social-science methodologies and field-specific risk assessment.
At the same time, social scientists have been urged to consider the idea of “risk,” not just in a personal or health-related sense, but as a concept that had interpersonal and social dimensions as well. According to the “Research Ethics Framework” adopted for UK researchers in 2006 by the Economic and Social Research Council, “The form of vigilance required for the management of physical risk used in medical research is inappropriate for the management of social risks that may be present in social science research” (Economic and Social Research Council 2006, 22). Social-science researchers have argued that strict application of clinical standards to survey, ethnographic, and other methodologies have stifled research, threatened academic freedom, and constitute an unpardonable paternalistic approach (American Association of University Professors 2006).
Most notably, this has concerned qualitative researchers and those involved in environmental- and social-justice projects. “[D]esigning culturally valid ethical procedures for research involves adopting a new perspective, one that derives from the ethnic groups themselves rather than one that starts from prior assumptions of what constitutes human values of respect, care and justice. . . . With rare exceptions, current professional standards and federal regulations for the protection of research participants fail to provide the guidance needed to achieve the responsible conduct of ethnocultural research” (Trimble & Fisher 2006, xii, xv). The American Association of University Professors adopted a resolution urging that “research whose methodology consists entirely of collecting data by surveys, conducting interviews, or observing behavior in public places be exempt from the requirement of IRB review” (2006, 3–4) and that institutions “formulate a separate set of procedures for research that is not federally funded” (p. 6).
Field-specific research and academic associations have also adopted ethics guidelines that are often tailored for dominant methodological practices. The code of the American Sociological Association provides guidelines on research conducted in public settings and the use of publicly available information. The code applies eight key values – integrity, fairness, professional and social responsibility, equality of opportunity, confidentiality, honesty and openness, respect for self and others, and freedom and safety – to the areas of teaching, research, publications, and relationships. The International Communication Association (ICA) has not adopted a code of professional ethics but instead offers members a general policy statement that embraces broad standards similar to those of AEJMC and NCA (International Communication Association 2006).
Research on Internet use and online communication has also raised questions about the need for more specific ethics guidelines. The European Commission’s ethics code for socio-economic research emphasizes that such research must acknowledge that what users consider “private” is shifting in response to new technologies, yet researchers risk breaching the trust of subjects by unintended disclosure of material such as drafts attached to emails. Research quality can also be threatened by problems of authenticity, originality, and reliability of Internet data (Dench et al. 2004). Stern also cautioned that, “Given [the nature of both] online communication and research, those who study Internet users and communities may find themselves particularly likely to come across distressing information in their research” (2003, 249). This is because the anonymity and public reach of the Internet appears to promote selfdisclosure (Reid 1996; Miller & Gergen 1998; Thompson 1999), which increases the likelihood that researchers will come across expressions that otherwise may have gone unnoticed.
Many Internet researchers dispute whether much of their work in collecting and assessing online communication is research that involves actual human subjects. In response, the US Department of Health and Human Services has stated that online research does involve human subjects if: (1) there is some element of “interaction or intervention with a living person that would not be occurring except for the research project at hand,” or (2) “identifiable private data/information will be obtained for this research in a form associable with the individual” (Stern 2003, 255).
- American Association of University Professors (2006). Academic freedom and the Institutional Review Board. At www.aaup.org/AAUP/About/committees/committee+repts/CommA/ ResearchonHumanSubjects.htm, accessed May 22, 2007.
- Babbage, C. (1970; 1st pub. 1830). Reflections on the decline of science in England. New York: Augustus Kelley.
- Dench, S., Iphofen, R., & Huws, U. (2004). RESPECT Project: A European Union code of ethics for socioeconomic research. Brighton: Institute for Employment Studies. Also at www.respectproject.org/ pubs/ethics.php, accessed May 22, 2007.
- Economic and Social Research Council (2006). Research ethics framework. At www.esrc.ac.uk/ ESRCInfoCentre/Images/ESRC_Re_Ethics_Frame_tcm6-11291.pdf, accessed June 5, 2007.
- Ezcurra, R. R. (2001). Composition and operation of selected research ethics review committees in Latin America. IRB 23, 9–12.
- Frankena, W. K. (1963). Ethics. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
- Institute of Science and Ethics (2005). Provision of support for producing a European directory of local ethics committees (LECs). At http://ec.europa.eu/research/conferences/2005/recs/pdf/ lec_finalreport.pdf, accessed June 8, 2007.
- International Communication Association (2006). ICA general statement on standards. At www.icahdq.org/aboutica/ethics.asp, accessed June 12, 2007.
- Kirigia, J. M., Wambebe, C., & Baba-Mousa, A. (2005). Status of national bioethics committees in the WHO African region. BMC Medical Ethics, 6, E10.
- Kitchener, K. S. (2000). Foundations of ethical practice, research and teaching in psychology. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.
- Miller, J., & Gergen, K. (1998). Life on the line: The therapeutic potentials of computer-mediated communication. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 24(2), 189–202.
- National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research (1979). The Belmont report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research. At http://ohsr.od.nih.gov/guidelines/belmont.html, accessed June 5, 2007.
- Reid, E. (1996). Informed consent in the study of on-line communities: A reflection on the effects of computer-mediated social research. The Information Society, 12(2), 169–174.
- Rollin, B. E. (2006). Science and ethics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Shamoo, A. E., & Resnik, D. B. (2003). Responsible conduct of research. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Stern, S. R. (2003). Encountering distressing information in online research: A consideration of legal and ethical responsibilities. New Media and Society, 5(2), 249–266.
- Thompson, S. (1999). The Internet and its potential influence on suicide. Psychiatric Bulletin, 23(8), 449–451.
- Trimble, J. E., & Fisher, C. B. (eds.) (2006). The handbook of ethical research with ethnocultural populations and communities. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
- World Health Organization (2002). Ethics in health research. New Delhi: WHO Southeast Asian Regional Office.
- Yidong, G., & Xin, H. (2006). Research ethics: China’s science ministry fires a barrage of measures at misconduct. Science, 312(5781), 1728–1729.