The Importance of Ethics in Research

According to Google, ethics are the “moral principles that govern a person’s behaviour of an activity”. But this is a very basic definition which, when talking about research, doesn’t say too much. I believe that ethics instead shape the way in which research is undertaken, and ensure that no moral boundaries are crossed, and that methodology and interactions are completed in a right, fair and ideal way.

Furthermore, ethics can mean different things to different people, as people may choose a different decision based on their moral compass and what they personally believe is right or wrong. There are countless stories which show examples of moral dilemmas, such as ‘The Overcrowded Lifeboat’:

In 1842, a ship struck an iceberg and more than 30 survivors were crowded into a lifeboat intended to hold 7. As a storm threatened, it became obvious that the lifeboat would have to be lightened if anyone were to survive. The captain reasoned that the right thing to do in this situation was to force some individuals to go over the side and drown. Such an action, he reasoned, was not unjust to those thrown overboard, for they would have drowned anyway. If he did nothing, however, he would be responsible for the deaths of those whom he could have saved. Some people opposed the captain’s decision. They claimed that if nothing were done and everyone died as a result, no one would be responsible for these deaths. On the other hand, if the captain attempted to save some, he could do so only by killing others and their deaths would be his responsibility; this would be worse than doing nothing and letting all die. The captain rejected this reasoning. Since the only possibility for rescue required great efforts of rowing, the captain decided that the weakest would have to be sacrificed. In this situation it would be absurd, he thought, to decide by drawing lots who should be thrown overboard. As it turned out, after days of hard rowing, the survivors were rescued and the captain was tried for his action. If you had been on the jury, how would you have decided?

This example shows the consequences from actions when deciding what to do in a moral dilemma, and although it being an extreme example, and not involving research, the principles are still evident.

Ethics are necessary to consider when undertaking research, especially when it involves human interaction. As stated by Marion McCutcheon (2015), some of the key points regarding research ethics include:

  • Voluntary participation (Ensuring that all those involved within the research are there on their own accord, and aren’t coerced into the position)
  • Concealment and deception (Ensuring that information isn’t withheld, and false information isn’t deliberately provided)
  • Protection and privacy (Ensuring the privacy of those involved and that anonymity is guaranteed, especially when researching illegal activity, or morally questionable topics)
  • Data analysis and reporting or findings (Ensuring that data isn’t tampered with to fabricate a result, information isn’t concealed, and false conclusions aren’t drawn)

I believe that these are all necessary to consider when undertaking research in any field to ensure no moral boundaries are crossed, and that all results are found without exploiting other people. As ethics are mostly subjective, it is necessary to understand ethical guidelines in the field of study to endure the research product is undertaken in an ethical manner.


McCutcheon, M 2015, ‘Research Ethics, PowerPoint slides, BCM210, University of Wollongong, viewed 16/04/2015

Ethics definition:

The Overcrowded Lifeboat:

One thought on “The Importance of Ethics in Research

  1. I think your blog is the only one I’ve seen so far that’s included that major ethical dilemma (and its consequence) in their post! But I really like it. I feel that you’ve taken a slightly different approach to answering this question but you’ve done it well. I also liked how you included the dot points regarding key themes of ethical research and ended on a strong, comprehensive conclusion.

    (And, I don’t think the captain should’ve been tried. He had no way of knowing that they would be rescued and he made a difficult decision under the circumstances to try and save as many people possible).

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