The Ethics of Academic Research
Rules of ethical conduct are embedded in every aspect of our life. Ethical considerations range from personal behaviour, social conduct, in the workplace, the minute that we are necessitated to coexist with another human being…which is to say, all the time. They can be enforced by our own conscience and the rule of law. These are tenets of life that are bound, to a large extent, by common sense…but the complexity of human life deem them far more intricate than that.
Likewise, ethics is paramount in academic research: for a variety of purposes including scientific integrity, and the need to maintain the integrity of participants. In line with the objective of specific disciplines, many overseeing organizations have set out a code of ethics including the APA, for example, but there are some underlying considerations that everyone undertaking research must bear – even if it’s your first paper, even if you’ll never set foot inside a university ever again.
The specifics may or may not apply to you, but in a world dominated by “post-truth” ideals, the presence of this conversation must be continuously reiterated.
Why do ethics matter?
For the same reason that we live under the rule of law.
For the same reason that doctors are required to take the “Hippocratic oath”.
Look, that shouldn’t even be a question…but let’s establish once and for all that ethics cannot be ignored.
Surely, you’ve already heard the tale of balancing between the thin line of ‘originality’ and plagiarism. Now, always remember that no matter how revolutionary your work is, you are a part of a larger body of knowledge production. You may follow these rules of ethics for the very functional reasons of getting good grades or not being penalized by your university, but understand that this is much larger than yourself. Ethics is not a formality, but a very necessary component for good academic work.
A lot of social science research, such as case studies, ethnography, and interviews require the cooperation of other human beings to make sure that your research is valid and relevant. While the pursuit of knowledge is a primary (and often intoxicating) goal, there are certain ethical norms that cannot be compromised. Here’s what you should remember if you have participants in your study.
- CONSENT MATTERS. Include them in your study only if they agree. This may seem evident, but it’s easy to get carried away when you have a devil of a deadline breathing down your neck. Verbal consent matters, but also prepare a consent form that has your participants’ signatures as well as yours before you commence your interaction.
- Respect the boundaries of your participants. Allow them an opportunity to express issues/discomfort throughout the process of your interaction. If a participant wants to withdraw from your project in its midst, comply with them. The same applies if they prefer to remain anonymous.
- Always, always, ensure that you maintain their confidentiality and integrity. That onus is on you, never forget that.
- Once you have received all your data, strive to write about your findings without compromising on the information that your participants have given you. Do not fabricate or misuse information.
- And lastly, once you are done writing (or even in the process), keep your participants in the loop: run drafts by them, and don’t forget to thank them in your acknowledgments section.
Note: While we’re on the topic of consent, realize that there are further complications to consider regarding the use of animals in research. Bioethics is a highly intricate subdiscipline of ethics – in terms of legal, social and ethical implications – so we’ve chosen to merely point out that such complications exist. This mostly pertains to medicine and biology-related fields, so we’ll leave it to the experts. For more info, you can begin here. And here.
Quantitative research primarily involves data analysis through statistics and is usually used within mathematics and the hard sciences. There are benefits to substantiating your work with stats: they are, understandably, deemed a more accurate form of measurement. There are several drawbacks to quantitative analysis as well – that also engender ethical concerns. It is important to note that this is part of a larger debate on how effective quantitative analysis is, as such, but keep these things in mind anyway, should this be your chosen path.
- “Statistics don’t care about your feelings”. This joke makes some sense to math and science, where there is a criterion to ensure replicability (This is somewhat being contested, but that’s a conversation for another day). But if you’re using stats in social sciences, you cannot use them in isolation. Sampling must be accompanied by qualitative methods. Or at least have the decency to provide a disclaimer that it is a sample.
- That brings me to my next point. Don’t assume anything. Greatness is not produced if your variables are taken for granted. It might be tempting to exaggerate your findings, but don’t do it. For yourself, and for the largess of your discipline.
- Don’t misrepresent or be selective about your data. To pick and choose your data just to prove your hypothesis is considered fraudulent in academics. This is called”p-hacking” (also known as data dredging or inflaton bias) and dilutes your scientific credibility marginally.
The cool thing is that there have been strides within research methodology to strive to a more holistic approach to quantitative analysis. You might want to check out the Bayesian inference for more info on that.
TL;DR – General Rules
- Substantiate all of your claims. You cannot fail to provide evidence for anything you say – be it in the form of case studies, statistical evidence, etc.
- Don’t fudge your data.
- Don’t exaggerate your results just so you can get a slightly higher grade. Null hypotheses are perfectly accepted in research.
- If you are using other people in your research, have their consent and continue to respect their boundaries throughout the research process.
- If your university has an internal ethics committee (usually, they do), consult them. If you’re using humans/animals as part of your research, or you’re writing about sensitive topics, get your project cleared by them before you proceed.
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