Making decisions about the ethics of research involves weighing the costs and benefits of conducting versus not conducting a given research project. The costs involve potential harm to the research participants and to the field, whereas the benefits include the potential for advancing knowledge about human behavior and offering various advantages, some educational, to the individual participants. Most generally, the ethics of a given research project are determined through a cost-benefit analysis, in which the costs are compared to the benefits. If the potential costs of the research appear to outweigh any potential benefits that might come from it, then the research should not proceed.
Arriving at a cost-benefit ratio is not simple. For one thing, there is no way to know ahead of time what the effects of a given procedure will be on every person or animal who participates or what benefit to society the research is likely to produce. In addition, what is ethical is defined by the current state of thinking within society, and thus perceived costs and benefits change over time. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services regulations require that all universities receiving funds from the department set up an Institutional Review Board (IRB) to determine whether proposed research meets department regulations.
The Institutional Review Board (IRB) is a committee of at least five members whose goal it is to determine the cost-benefit ratio of research conducted within an institution. The IRB approves the procedures of all the research conducted at the institution before the research can begin. The board may suggest modifications to the procedures, or (in rare cases) it may inform the scientist that the research violates Department of Health and Human Services guidelines and thus cannot be conducted at all.
One important tool for ensuring that research is ethical is the use of informed consent. A sample informed consent form is shown in ***Figure 2.2 "Sample Consent Form". Informed consent, conducted before a participant begins a research session, is designed to explain the research procedures and inform the participant of his or her rights during the investigation. The informed consent explains as much as possible about the true nature of the study, particularly everything that might be expected to influence willingness to participate, but it may in some cases withhold some information that allows the study to work.
Source: Adapted from Stangor, C. (2011). Research methods for the behavioral sciences (4th ed.). Mountain View, CA: Cengage.
Because participating in research has the potential for producing long-term changes in the research participants, all participants should be fully debriefed immediately after their participation. The debriefing is a procedure designed to fully explain the purposes and procedures of the research and remove any harmful aftereffects of participation.