Four people with shocked expressions
The consequences of unethical behaviour may be more serious than you first thought.

Repercussions of unethical behaviour

Your ethical obligations are no laughing matter. Let’s look at what’s at stake.

If your research proposal does not meet the ethical requirements set down by your supervising institution, it won’t be approved. This means you cannot proceed with your research until you have ironed out the ethical kinks in your proposed plan.

If you’re thinking ‘OK, I just need to get through the initial approval process’, think again. Even when studies have been given the green light from the Ethics Review Committee, you must commit to ethical follow through… every step of the way.

If you are found to have breached ethical standards, your research may be deemed void and subsequently retracted. You will face disciplinary action. If your research was published in connection with your doctorate, you may have the qualification revoked. Depending on the nature of the breach, there may be legal action taken against you, which could result in a prison sentence (Mayer, 2016).

Also, consider that any action or omission that could make your research be considered unethical is also likely to affect the reliability or validity of the data or even both. In contrast, ethical conduct means your work can stand up under scrutiny.

Unethical conduct impacts on your reputation as a researcher, as well as that of your colleagues and your supervising institution. It may lead to complaints being made against you and your institution, along with damaging media coverage.

Most importantly, unethical research hurts the people who generously agreed to participate in your project. Don’t make the mistake of becoming so caught up in your research that you lose sight of the fact our research directly impacts real people. Remember, participants are not just being inconvenienced by giving up their personal time. In some cases they may experience mild disturbance or distress because of their involvement. There may be reactions - expected or unexpected, so it’s essential we anticipate these and safeguard our participants at all times.

‘By repeatedly questioning and reflecting on my ethical decisions, I have gained a greater understanding of the range of my choices and the kind of researcher I want to be with my participants (Ellis, 2007)’.

Participants may seek compensation for any harm you have caused them. If you’re planning to conduct research under the supervision of a university, keep in mind most university insurers will not indemnify you if you failed to seek ethics approval (if it was required) OR if you fail to adhere to the terms of the project as approved by your review body.

Not the publicity you’re looking for

Unethical conduct is associated with humiliation, loss of reputation and legal repercussions. Websites such as Retraction Watch are not where you want your research featured. Don’t take shortcuts or risks with your own academic integrity or the well-being of others. The regret and the long lasting repercussions that inevitably follow just aren’t worth it.

Your task

Select the comments link below and post your thoughts on the repercussions of unethical conduct in research. Why do you think so many researchers continue to make choices that result in their work being discredited?


Ellis, C. (2007). Telling Secrets, Revealing Lives. Rational ethics in research with intimate others. Qualitative Inquiry, 13 (1). Sage Publications.

Mayer, T. (2016). Why unethical research behavior could result in a revoked doctorate. Elsevier.

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This article is from the free online course:

Why Ethics Matter: Ethical Research

Griffith University