Risk of Harms: Unethical Research in Social Sciences Area

Risk of Harms: Unethical Research in Social Sciences Area

Did you know that social sciences and humanities also conduct research on human participants? It’s not just the biomedicine or healthcare areas. Social sciences cover various fields such as geography, history, political science, anthropology, economics, psychology, criminology, sociology, and cultural studies.

What is the Risk of Harms?

Though these disciplines have different approaches to studying social behavior, they are often grouped together when considering ethical issues that arise. One crucial matter is the ‘risk of harm’ that participants may face. It can be physical, social, psychological, emotional, financial, or legal.

Deception is generally not acceptable in social science research as it can harm the entire study. However, sometimes misleading participants may be necessary. In such cases, researchers have to justify why the deception is needed and take steps to ensure participants’ safety.

While many research projects in social sciences are of minimal risk of harm, we should still consider the potential harms that may exist. It’s always important to weigh the risk of harm against the potential benefits to individuals and society in all types of research.

Understanding the Breadth of Human Participant Research

When many people think about where human participant research is being conducted, the areas of biomedicine and healthcare are the first things that come to mind. Disciplines within the social sciences and humanities conduct a great deal of human participant research.

The Diversity of Social Sciences and Humanities

Often, social scientists are grouped together; however, traditionally, social sciences include disciplines such as geography, history, political science, anthropology, economics, psychology, criminology, sociology, and cultural studies.

Unique Research Approaches in Social Sciences

Each of the disciplines and the kinds of research that are undertaken in these areas is unique, encompassing markedly different approaches to studying social behavior, the human condition, and the notion of the social life of individuals and groups.

Interdisciplinary Research in Social Sciences and Humanities

Furthermore, many research endeavors in this context cross disciplinary borders and may be noted as being interdisciplinary or area studies.

Ethical Considerations in Social Sciences and Humanities Research

While many researchers from these traditions might not agree that the two groups of disciplines or their endeavors are similar, research in the social sciences and humanities is often grouped together when considering unique ethical issues that arise.

The Risk of Harm in Ethical Review

A vital issue in the ethical review of social science and humanities research is the ‘risk of harm.’ There have also been ethically questionable research endeavors in the social sciences and humanities, such as sociologist Laud Humphrey’s ethnographic study.

The Role of Deception in Research

As a general rule, deception is not acceptable when conducting social science research with human society. Deception jeopardizes the integrity of the informed consent process and can potentially harm the entire research.

Managing Deception in Research Studies

Occasionally, exploring the area of interest fully may require misleading participants about the subject matter of the study. The deception or misrepresentation should be verified with very careful attention.

Ethical Justification and Safeguarding in Research

It requires an in-depth justification of why the deception is necessary for the study, and steps should be taken to safeguard the research work.

The Multiplicity of Risks in Unethical Research

It is also clear that there is a risk of harm involved for participants who take part in many types of unethical research.

Types of Harm in Research Participation

Harms resulting from participating in research may be physical, social, psychological, emotional, financial, or legal.

Assessing the Risk of Harm in Social Sciences Research

Many research projects in the social sciences are what we would classify as being of minimal risk of harm. That does not mean that we should then not attend to the risk of potential harms that do exist. The risk of harm must be considered against the potential for benefit to individuals and society in all types of research.

Predicaments of Ethical Research

Not long ago, academicians were often cautious about airing the ethical dilemmas they faced in their research and academic work, but that environment is changing today.

Academic researchers are more likely to seek out the advice of their colleagues on issues ranging from supervising graduate students on how to handle sensitive research data (Smith, 2003: 56).

There has been a real change in the last ten years in people talking more frequently and more openly about ethical dilemmas of all sorts. Indeed, researchers face an array of ethical requirements:

They must meet professional and institutional standards for conducting research with human participants, often supervising students they also teach and having to sort out authorship issues, just to name a few.

Four Quandaries of Ethical Research

Four Quandaries of Ethical Research

The APA prescribes four recommendations to help researchers steer clear of ethical quandaries or barriers (Smith, 2003: 56).

  1. Sharing Intellectual Property
  2. Be Conscious of Multiple Roles
  3. Respect Confidentiality and Privacy
  4. Follow Informed-Consent Rules

Sharing Intellectual Property

APA’s 2002 ethics code offers some guidance: It specifies that ‘faculty advisors discuss publication credit with students as early as feasible and throughout the research and publication process as appropriate.

When researchers and students put such understandings in writing, they have a helpful tool to continually discuss and evaluate contributions as the research progresses.

However, even the best plans can result in disputes, which often occur because people look at the same situation differently.

APA’s ethics code stipulates that psychologists take credit only for work they have actually performed or to which they have substantially contributed and that publication credit should accurately reflect the relative contributions.

Minor contributions to the research or to the writing for publications are acknowledged appropriately, such as in footnotes or in an introductory statement.

The same rules apply to students. If they contribute substantively to the conceptualization, design, execution, analysis, or interpretation of the research reported, they should be listed as authors.

‘If you are a grant reviewer or a journal manuscript reviewer (who) sees someone’s research (that) has not been published yet, you owe that person a duty of confidentiality and anonymity’ (Gerald, 1998).

Researchers also need to meet their ethical obligations once their research is published: If authors learn of errors that change the interpretation of research findings, they are ethically obligated to promptly correct the errors in a correction, retraction, and erratum or by other means.

Be Conscious of Multiple Roles

APA’s ethics code says psychologists should avoid relationships that could reasonably impair their professional performance or could exploit or harm others.

But it also notes that many kinds of multiple relationships are not unethical as long as they are not reasonably expected to have adverse effects.

That notwithstanding, psychologists should think carefully before entering into multiple relationships with any person or group, such as recruiting students or clients as participants in research studies or investigating the effectiveness of a product of a company whose stock they own.

Respect Confidentiality and Privacy

Upholding individuals’ rights to confidentiality and privacy is a central tenet of every psychologist’s work (APA, 2000). Researchers need to devise ways to ask whether participants are willing to talk about sensitive topics without putting them in awkward situations.

That could mean they provide a set of increasingly detailed interview questions so that participants can stop if they feel uncomfortable.

Because research participants have the freedom to choose how much information they have about themselves, how much they will reveal, and under what circumstances.

When done properly, the consent process ensures that individuals are voluntarily participating in the research with full knowledge of relevant risks and benefits.

APA’s ethics code mandates that psychologists who conduct research should inform participants about:

  • The purpose of the research, expected duration, and procedures;
  • Participants’ rights to decline to participate and to withdraw from the research once it has started, as well as the anticipated consequences of doing so;
  • Reasonably foreseeable factors that may influence their willingness to participate, such as potential risks, discomfort, or adverse effects;
  • Any prospective research benefits;
  • Limits of confidentiality, such as data coding, disposal, sharing, and archiving, and when confidentiality must be broken;
  • Incentives for participation;
  • Whom participants can contact with questions.

Experts also suggest covering the likelihood, magnitude, and duration of harm or benefit of participation, emphasizing that their involvement is voluntary and discussing treatment alternatives if relevant to the research.

Conclusion

Social sciences and humanities also conduct research on human participants. The risk of harm, which can be physical, social, psychological, emotional, financial, or legal, is a crucial ethical issue that participants may face.

While deception is generally not acceptable, sometimes misleading participants may be necessary, but researchers must justify it and ensure safety. We should always weigh the risk of harm against the potential benefits to individuals and society in all types of research.