How to start research at university

What are research ethics - and why should I care?

when you've finished this page you will be able to...


Even at undergraduate level, the role of the researcher carries responsibilities. Research ethics are often debated in the press - you may have read about the ethical issues raised by stem cell research, cloning and animal research. However, ethics are not just an issue in research involving human or animal subjects - all research must be conducted ethically.

Ethical issues are not just a problem for scientists either; for example, social scientists conducting ethnographic research must be careful that their involvement does not influence the natural behaviour or lives of their research subjects.

There have been some notorious and shocking instances of fraudulent research; take a look at this example...

The Tuskegee Syphilis Study

This clinical research study was conducted on poor, mostly illiterate male African-American agricultural workers in Tuskegee, Alabama, over a period of 40 years from 1932 to 1972. The men were all suffering from syphilis, which was left untreated so that researchers could study the progress of the disease when left unchecked. The men were not asked to give their consent to be studied, and they weren't informed they were suffering from syphilis.

Unbelievably, this shockingly unethical study actually took a turn for the worse. In the late 1940s, penicillin was identified as being an effective treatment for syphilis, but this treatment, which would have saved the men from a lingering, painful death, was withheld so the researchers could continue to monitor the progression of the untreated disease.

When, in 1972, the New York Times broke the story of the Tuskegee Study, pubic disgust led to the setting up of a legal framework to ensure ethical conduct in future clinical studies.

In 1997, President Clinton gave a formal apology to the surviving research subjects, their families and the families of those who had died.

If you're interested in reading about some more research studies that shocked the world, follow the link to find out about the Milgram experiment which demonstrated that people's willingness to 'follow orders' would even induce them to kill their fellow research subjects!

More recently, Korean stem cell researcher, Hwang Woo-Suk was found to have fabricated much of the data underpinning his claimed breakthroughs in the areas of stem cells and cloning. Follow this link to read more: stem cell fraud.

But what is 'ethical' research, and how will you know if you're behaving ethically in the course of your research study? For research to be ethical it must...

Even the 'humble' undergraduate researcher must conduct their research to the highest ethical standards. As an undergraduate researcher, you must NEVER...

Activity: ethics in research - take as long as you like

In this activity, you'll explore the fascinating - and murky - world of research ethics.

1. Explore some of the sites below; they provide examples of some of the ethical issues that can occur in research.

  • www.badscience.net this site has many examples of dubious practices in many areas of science.
  • www1.umn.edu explore some of the case studies on this site, and decide what you'd do when faced with an ethical dilemma.
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