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Core principles underpinning ethical codes

Codes of ethics are built around a common set of principles. Let’s explore these in relation to research.

The goal of a code of ethics is to guide decision making to promote fair dealings and protect the vulnerable. These standards align with the aims of research, help ensure researchers can be held accountable to the public, and engender public support for research (Resnik, 2015).

Understanding the following principles and using them to guide your conduct and decision making throughout the research process will help you meet your ethical obligations.

1. Beneficence

The word itself may be tricky to pronounce, but it quite simply refers to your obligation to ‘do good’. This means minimising harm and maximising the benefits for participants involved in your research - and the wider society who may be impacted by it. How you fulfill the requirement of beneficence is directly connected to the way you design your research study. Try remembering the underlying meaning of the word by mentally associating it with ‘benefit’.

2. Non-maleficence

This principle works in partnership with Beneficence (doing good). Non-maleficence relates to ‘doing no harm’. It means not intentionally causing physical, mental, emotional or financial harm to your participants during the research.

Research is an investigation into the unknown, so by its very nature it carries some degree of risk. Although it is difficult to anticipate all possible repercussions, an ethics review will want to know how you have balanced known risks against the benefits and that you have taken steps to prevent foreseeable harm.

A small number of research projects will knowingly cause harm. For example a study that exposes political corruption. In these cases, the contribution to knowledge and other public benefits must be significant enough to justify those risks.

3. Justice

The ethical principle of Justice relates to ensuring fair treatment for all. For example, justice needs to apply when it comes to choosing your research participants. In an ethics review, you will need to show you undertook the selection process fairly. This means avoiding disproportionate risk to a particular group or having one group enjoy all the benefits.

Unless you have a specific reason for working with a vulnerable or marginalised group, it also means avoiding drawing participants from these populations. In other words, it is unethical to target participants who are more susceptible to coercion, simply because it is convenient to do so. For example, institutionalised participants or those with a disability. Where the focus of your research is a vulnerable group, there are special protection measures to be followed. We will look at these in further detail in Week 2.

In summary, the ethical principle of Justice aims to ensure research participants are not exploited or discriminated against.

4. Respect

The ethical principle of Respect relates to prioritising the welfare, rights, beliefs and culture of the participants ahead of the objectives of the research project.

Autonomy is a key component of the ethical principle of Respect. You may have encountered this word before in other contexts. It relates to the right for people to decide for themselves. To ensure you are observing the ethical principle of Autonomy in your research, participants must have the freedom to make their own choices. They must not be coerced and must be free to choose what activities they will and will not participate in.

5. Research merit and integrity

Research which has merit contributes to the existing body of knowledge and benefits society in some way. It is based on a thorough understanding of the current literature on a topic. Integrity in research is characterised by a commitment to knowledge development, adherence to ethical guidelines and recognised principles of research and honesty. It involves disseminating and communicating the results of the study irrespective of whether the results match our expectations and without allowing conflicts of interest to alter what we report.

Your task

Imagine your colleague is thinking about undertaking a study to research how social media impacts on the use of recreational drugs for young people. Reflecting on the principles of beneficence, non-maleficence, justice and respect, what ethical considerations come to mind?

Select the comments link below and post your response.


Resnik, D.B. (2015). What is Ethics in Research & Why is it Important? National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Ethics Matter: Ethical Research

Griffith University