Skip to 0 minutes and 9 secondsAn example of an ethically challenging research project from my own area is to look at the health and safety of firefighters who engage with specific environmental challenges, namely short sleep, hot temperatures and exposure to noxious gases like carbon monoxide. To actually produce an evidence base to protect the health and safety of those workers, you need to expose research participants to those same conditions, which, by their very definition, are dangerous and present an ethical dilemma for the researcher and the ethics committee trying to help the researchers achieve their goals.

Skip to 0 minutes and 47 secondsIn our experience, leaning on the current evidence around occupational health and safety guidelines and the current exposure levels that firefighters already faced, we were able to work with an ethics committee to set up a simulation that represented the firefighters true working environment, but also control the heat, the sleep deprivation and the carbon monoxide levels to a way that was manageable and was safe for the firefighters so we could produce both evidence based guidelines, but also keep our individual participants safe and healthy during their testing. Afghanistan is an incredibly difficult place to do research. It's been almost impossible in last four years to get there. The universities don't like researchers going to Kabul at the moment.

Skip to 1 minute and 36 secondsAnd it's very hard to write about a place that you can't go to and I find that ethically a big dilemma. But I also think I don't want the women of Afghanistan not to have any voice or priority because people are blocked out of there. It's a really difficult one. We all have access to ethics boards, human research ethics committees, who can help us make those decisions. So I would say for, you know, when it comes to ethics, you need to make use of your ethics board and spend time discussing with them some of the challenges in your research.

Skip to 2 minutes and 15 secondsYou've got people in that room with very diverse backgrounds and experiences and perspectives, so if there's something not quite right with your study, they're quite likely to pick up on that. It might not necessarily mean that you have to fix or change anything, but it just might draw your attention to something that might need further consideration in your study design.

The value of an independent opinion

Are ethical issues always so obvious?

Unfortunately, no. Despite your best planning, ethical dilemmas you have not prepared for may still arise throughout your research process. This is why it’s important to have a deep understanding of ethical principles to inform your decisions and guide your actions.

When the way forward is not clear, your colleagues, supervisor and ultimately Research Ethics Committee will be there to guide you.

An institution’s Research Ethics Committee (REC) aims to safeguard the welfare, dignity, and safety of the participants, ensuring that ethically approved research is conducted in line with the approved protocol, and promotes public confidence in the conduct of research (Guraya, London & Guraya, 2014).

The function of the REC

The REC facilitates ethical research. As cited in Guraya, London & Guraya (2014), the REC performs the following functions.

  • Review research proposals prior to commencement to assess the ethical standards set out in the research design and planned methodology.
  • Provide observations to help modify research proposals, where required, to ensure it meets ethical standards.
  • Make decisions to approve or reject the research proposal.
  • Monitor the conduct of the approved research to ensure it continues to conform to the required protocols.
  • Resolve complaints that may arise during the course of approved research projects, including the conduct of the ethical review of the project.
  • Terminate or suspend a research project if participants are known to be exposed to greater levels of risk than those approved.
  • Maintain accountability and provide quality assurance by reporting back to the university or institution.

What about independent or ‘solo’ research projects?

If you’re conducting research independently and don’t have automatic access to a supervisor or REC, there is greater potential for flaws in your research design to slip through the cracks. For independent projects you would be wise to share your plans and ideas with a trusted mentor, colleague or friend who has a grasp of ethical principles and can provide objective input before you begin.

If your research involves humans, please check what the guidelines are in your geographical area before you begin. For example, in Australia, the National Statement requires ALL research involving human participants to first undergo an ethical review. If you’re an independent researcher, you may approach any human research ethics committee, however you may need to pay a fee for this service. You will need to check HREC’s terms of reference.

As with any research, you will need to keep meticulous notes and records. It is not impossible to do successful research independently, but depending on the nature of your project, the logistics can be more difficult, the process more time consuming and if you need specialised equipment, infinitely more expensive. In other words, do your research before starting independent research.

Scenario: The Smith Farm Factory Workers

For your next task, imagine you are a member of an ethics review committee. You have just received a complaint about a study that had previously cleared ethics review, but is not being executed as planned.

Here is the information you have received.

The participants are predominantly immigrant workers employed by the Smith Farm. The complaint states that none of the participants were clear on what the research involved before it started. They were told by their manager ‘it’s important research that will help many people’. The workers are to be paid a bonus. However, they must sign an agreement if they want the bonus. If they don’t sign, they are still required to undertake the research as part of their working day, but are not paid anything additional. Most participants cannot read or write in English. The workers are reported to be ‘wary,’ but don’t want to cause trouble. Some do not have the correct work visa and are concerned about the repercussions in the workplace if they don’t participate.

When the study begins, the workers were asked a lot of personal questions relating to a broad range of topics, spanning childhood memories, sexual history, diet, culture and general health. Some of the questioning made participants feel humiliated and many are not happy to have their responses video recorded. The laboratory testing is not painful, but uncomfortable and sometimes embarrassing. The complaint states that ‘no one is sure what the researchers are trying to achieve’. When they ask the manager how much longer the study will continue, he continues to say he doesn’t know.

Your task

Select the comments link below and post what ethical problems you have identified in the Smith Farm Factory Workers’ scenario. What would you have to say about it, if you were a member of a Research Ethics Committee, conducting the review on this complaint? How could the research have been designed and conducted in a manner that was more respectful and ethical?


Guraya, S.Y., London, N.J.M. & Guraya, S.S. (2014). Ethics in Medical Research. Journal of Microsopy and Ultrastructure. Vol 2 (3).

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This video is from the free online course:

Why Ethics Matter: Ethical Research

Griffith University