Research, as I have previously noted, is conducted everywhere and is moreover a daily occurrence. But what makes research ethical? Furthermore, what does it mean to be ethical? In order to prove the significance of conducting ethical research, I thought I would use case studies in which the research practices utilised were in fact highly unethical.
Let’s start with the Stanford Prison Experiment. In 1971, psychologist Philip Zimbardo conducted the Stanford Prison Experiment in order to study the effects of power and how this influenced individual actions and personal experiences. The experiment was abruptly ended after only six days as those put in positions of power became abusive in the roles they were given, resulting in brutality and suffering. Zimbardo noted that if the experiment had continued, damage to both physical and emotional health would have incurred.
The experiment has been widely criticised in the global community, as it was believed Zimbardo did not effectively gain consent. As Zimbardo himself was unaware of how the situation would pan out, the consent provided was deemed insufficient. The research he conducted in the Stanford Prison Experiment was also a violation of self-respect and essentially exposed the participants to both physical and psychological stress. Moreover, by withholding information from his participants and by failing to treat each individual with unconditional human regard (McCutcheon, 2015), Zimbardo clearly infringed upon the framework for ethical research.
In June of 2014, The Guardian reported a case of unethical research on the behalf of multimillion dollar social media conglomerate Facebook. The global networking entity “manipulated nearly 700,000 users’ news feeds to see whether it would affect their emotions” (Arthur, 2015) and failed to inform the participants of its social study. Criticised globally for the actions that took place, Facebook essentially “harmed participants, because it changed their mood” (Arthur, 2015) and consequently dabbled in unethical research practices. Besides the intentional harm Facebook researchers created by altering newsfeeds to study emotions, the lack of informed consent was a major contributing factor in determining the research as unethical.
In sum, ethics are “widely-agreed moral principles about what is right and what is wrong, what is proper and improper” (McCutcheon, 2015). Whilst in research ethics may be subjective, it is essential to understand that ethical research is far more valuable than its unethical counterpart. It is the duty of the researcher to ensure that the rights and freedoms of the participants are upheld at all times, and that they are treated with fairness, respect and justice. Ethics extends to include informed consent, prevention from concealment and deception, and moreover embodies notions of privacy. It is of the utmost importance that each of these criterion are met by the researcher, and to prevent unethical practices such as those conducted in the Stanford Prison Experiment an the Facebook Emotion Study, researchers need to be proactive and efficient in ensuring these codes of practice are not ignored.
- Arthur, C., 2014, ‘Facebook Emotion Study Breached Ethical Guidelines, Researchers Say’, The Guardian, June 30, viewed 29 March 2015, <http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/jun/30/facebook-emotion-study-breached-ethical-guidelines-researchers-say>
- McCutcheon, M., 2015, ‘Research Ethics’, Lecture / Prezi Presentation, BCM210, University of Wollongong, 18 March 2015.