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iHub Research By Angela Okune / May 12, 2014

Ethical Questions in Research


By Sidney Ochieng

Last week at iHub Research, we had our first “Brown Bag Lunch,” an internal semiformal meeting over lunch where everyone was to carry packed lunch and discuss several things that may affect us as researchers. This session focused on ethics in research and was facilitated by Juliet Ongwae, a visiting research fellow at iHub.

Ethics has been described in several ways; for most people they are the rules that distinguish between wrong and right, professional code of conduct, or even a religious creed. The most common way of describing them is as the norms of conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Ethics also tie in very closely with morals, which are things that society considers proper or right and therefore ethics can also be described as the study of morality.

Brown Bag Lunch

So why are ethics important in research?

Ethics protect the aims of research. Research builds on the current knowledge available and augments it, communicating and spreading knowledge while generating measurable and testable data. Without ethical guidelines, data can be falsified or misrepresented, therefore undermining the aims of research.

Ethics also provide a means for protecting the researcher and particularly research subjects. The privacy and rights of research subjects are paramount and subjects should feel comfortable to participate in research. Also their personal security is important and research shouldn’t expose participants to unnecessary risks. The researcher should also avoid situations that put themselves at risk.

Public support for research is also affected by ethics, since the public should provide support through funding for research they know to be ethical and of the highest quality and integrity. The public should also hold researchers accountable for the research they conduct.

Research is essentially collaborative work as it involves coordination and cooperation among several groups of people. Ethics promotes values that facilitate collaboration by promoting honesty, trust and fairness. Also ethics ensure that the researchers that come after you are not adversely affected by the after-effect of your research.

To propel the discussion, Juliet had several scenarios that highlighted some of the potential ambiguity that exists for social researchers:

  • Your subject has HIV and mentions to you that she is a prostitute and regularly has unprotected sex with her clients.
  • Your research has the potential to save millions or billions of lives but 40 people may die during your study.
  • You observe a riot or student strike and police demand, under the threat of jail time, you point out the people who were looting.
  • You’re embedded in a community that you promised confidentiality and anonymity and you witness a crime.

One thing that came up in discussion was the concept of right and wrong. It very quickly became apparent that these things are not black and white, but in fact, several shades of gray. For example, would you let 40 people die so that you could save millions more down the road? Who gets to decide which lives are more important? Does the manner in which these deaths happen matter? What if you had consent of these people and made them aware of the dangers? What about the risk of skewing the data, how much should this be considered? In such a scenario, it becomes less of a matter of right and wrong and more of one of choosing between relative “right”s (because if something was absolutely “wrong” then it probably shouldn’t be done at all).

The issue of the source of funding, the potential of the source of funding to affect research and the funder’s right to access data also came up. Research costs money. Private organisations and foundations have their own agendas and ideologies, which affect the way researchers approach their research and present their results. Also, increasingly organisations that fund research demand access to all data collected. This may compromise promises made to subjects about the confidentiality and anonymity for their responses and other data collected.

These questions don’t necessarily have “right” answers that everyone agrees on. Only thorough thought and discussion can we come up with answers to some of these questions. We’d love to hear your thoughts on some of the scenarios here so sound off in the comments section below.

How would you make your decisions and justify them?

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Author : Angela Okune

Angela is Research Lead at iHub. She is keen on growing knowledge on the uptake and utility of ICTs in East Africa. She is also co-lead of Waza Experience, an iHub community initiative aimed at prompting under-privileged children to explore innovation and entrepreneurship concepts grounded in real-world experience.

  • Anthony Ladson at 21:52:44PM Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    These are pretty tough.
    In regards to the first scenario, I would not violate my subject’s confidentiality, unless there was malicious intent. If she was unaware, I would go over safe-sex practices, local clinics and HIV/AIDS resources. Then maybe go into the ramifications of continued unsafe sex practices (possibility of getting more STDs, the societal harm, etc). But if I felt that she was infecting people maliciously…I’m not sure, I think I would report it. Would it be different than a person telling me that they are poisoning people? I don’t know. How would you handle this case if malicious intent was revealed?

  • Anthony Ladson at 22:13:42PM Tuesday, May 13, 2014

    I’m also interested in when ethics becomes a hinderance to research. Let me preface by saying that I do think a sense of ethics is vital for research (for all the reasons mentioned in the article). But I think that the basis for our ethics should be just as intensely scrutinized as our data, otherwise it has the capacity to become a hinderance to research.

    For example, in the Dark Ages it was an ethical issue to challenge the idea that earth is not the center of the universe. To do so was seen as a challenge God and Biblical scripture. And because of it, we lived in ignorance for centuries. I think it would be both naive and egotistic to think this isn’t done today. That’s why I think a critique of ethics is just as important for research as having a sense of ethics.

  • Sidney at 12:24:27PM Wednesday, May 14, 2014

    Hey Andrew.
    For the first scenario have you thought of the fact that in this day and age it is impossible that her clients don’t know the risks. For me I’d not report her and carry on with her research.
    Ethics can definitely hinder research. For example in cloning. We know that this could save lives but religious questions coming in to play. It’s a difficult minefield to navigate


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