When studying human behavior, opportunities for unethical behavior abound. Human nature being what it is, researchers must be on their guard against unethical research practices. There’s a lot of temptation to lie. If you want to make a big name for yourself as a researcher, or if you’re hoping to use research to support your opinion, it’s tempting to fabricate data or falsify findings to suit your needs, especially when the actual findings are a dud. We’ve seen that we incorporate what we learn from previous research throughout the research process, and when doing so, we are always careful to cite sources of words and ideas that are not our own.
When we are collecting data from people—interviewing them, observing them, rifling through their administrative records—we make every effort not to harm them. We make sure research participants know of any potential risks of participating in our studies, including obvious things like physical harm, of course, but also including the risk that their personal information— however unrisky we may think this is—will become known to others. Often, we promise our research participants confidentiality, and we work hard to meet that ethical commitment.
When we conduct research under the auspices of a university or government agency, our research ethics are monitored by Institutional Review Boards, or IRBs. IRBs certify that researchers have been trained in research ethics, usually by verifying that researchers have completed an online training module. We submit our research plans to these boards, including plans for how we will protect the ethicality of our research projects, and we wait for the green light from them before we proceed. They monitor our progress and serve as a point of contact for anyone needing to express a concern about the ethical conduct of researchers. To be honest, IRBs can be a bit of a hassle to the researcher just wanting to get on with the fun work of doing research, but their responsibilities, particularly the protection of human research subjects, are indispensable to ensuring the ethicality of social research.