How to select ethical research paper topics


It is really surprising the number of students that have sat through ethics in research lectures, and still hand in proposals for research that border on violations of human rights.

Choose your research topic with extreme care, you obviously want your work to stand out, but let it stand out for the right reason not because your research topic causes stress or anxiety to the participant.

Think about Zimbardo and the Stanford Prison Experiment, and what about Milgram and the electric shock experiments’? Why did these experiments fail to give the ethical consideration to the participants?

Thought should be given to the way participants in the study are treated; the ethical guidelines that are laid down by your College or University and the ethical guidelines of your field of study.

Research ethics in a Nutshell - When selecting your research topic you need to:

  • Take care when considering using participants who are regarded as being part of a vulnerable group. What constitutes a vulnerable group? People with learning disabilities; young children; people who are ill; people who have recently experienced emotional trauma. Employees could be considered to be a vulnerable group as the results of the study could affect their employment status.
  • Do no harm. Sometimes elements of harm may not be directly obvious. Don’t even consider intrusive interventions.
  • Responsibilities. Elements of risk are not always physical, they can also be psychological. Be aware that you can cause emotional distress, with some research topics.
  • Informed Consent. You need to be really upfront with your participants as to what they are being asked to do. You need to produce an information sheet that is written specifically for the age and ability group you will be working with. You also need to provide a consent form.
  • Confidentiality. Check with your College or University as to how long the data will be kept and where. Let your participant know, how that data is being used and that it will not get passed on, say to a mailing company for advertising.
  • Bribery. This can be seen as a pressurizing a participant. Ethically you cannot pay someone to take part in your research project, but you can offer a meal or snack as a thank you.
  • The right to withdraw. Let your participant know they can withdraw at any time. This may cause you some stress but you need to take into consideration before you start your research that this is what may happen. (E.g. generally, for every 30 people you may invite to take part in your study only about 20 will respond out of that 20 only about 10 will actually take part – target more people than you will actually need). Intrusive intervention.
  • Plan for every eventuality. Remember that the ethics review committee will be looking very carefully at your proposal to make sure that it meets all the criteria.

Choose your topic

Keep it simple. Keep it realistic. Keep it plausible.

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