There are many ethical issues to consider in relation to the participants of a research activity.
One could ask: why should a respondent give any information to a researcher? What right does a researcher have to knock at someone’s door or to send out a questionnaire? Is it ethical to disturb an individual, even if you ask permission before asking questions? Why should a person give you his/her time? Your request for information may create anxiety or put pressure on a respondent. Is this ethical? But the above questions display a naive attitude. If this attitude had been adopted, there would have been no progress in the world. Research is required in order to improve conditions. Provided any piece of research is likely to help society directly or indirectly, it is acceptable to ask questions, if you first obtain the respondents’ informed consent. Before you begin collecting information, you must consider the relevance and usefulness of the research you are undertaking and be able to convince others of this also. If you cannot justify the relevance of the research you are conducting, you are wasting your respondents’ time, which is unethical.
In every discipline it is considered unethical to collect information without the knowledge of
participants, and their expressed willingness and informed consent. Seeking informed consent is probably the most common method in medical and social research. Informed consent implies that subjects are made adequately aware of the type of information you want from them, why the information is being sought, what purpose it will be put to, how they are expected to participate in the study, and how it will directly or indirectly affect them. It is important that the consent should also be voluntary and without pressure of any kind.
Seeking sensitive information
Information sought can pose an ethical dilemma in research. Certain types of information can be
regarded as sensitive or confidential by some people and thus an invasion of privacy. Asking for this information may upset or embarrass a respondent. However, if you do not ask for the information, it may not be possible to pursue your interest in the area and contribute to the existing body of knowledge. For most people, questions on sexual behaviour, drug use and shoplifting are intrusive. Even questions on marital status, income and age may be considered to be an invasion of privacy by some. In collecting data you need to be careful about the sensitivities of your respondents. The dilemma you face as a researcher is whether you should ask sensitive and intrusive questions. In the author’s opinion it is not unethical to ask such questions provided that you clearly and frankly tell your respondents the type of information you are going to ask, and give them sufficient time to decide if they want to share the information with you, without any major inducement.
The possibility of causing harm to participants
Is the research going to harm participants in any way? Harm includes: not only hazardous medical experiments but also any social research that might involve such things as discomfort, anxiety, harassment, invasion of privacy, or demeaning or dehumanizing procedures. When a researcher collects data from respondents or involves subjects in an experiment, s/he needs to examine carefully whether their involvement is likely to harm them in any way. If it is, they must make sure that the risk is minimal. Minimum risk means that the extent of harm or discomfort in the research is not greater than that ordinarily encountered in daily life. It is unethical if the way you seek information creates anxiety or harassment, and if you think it may happen, you need to take steps to prevent this.
Sharing information about a respondent with others for purposes other than research is unethical. Sometimes you need to identify your study population to put your findings into context. In such a situation you need to make sure that at least the information provided by respondents is kept anonymous. It is unethical to identify an individual respondent and the information provided by him/her. Therefore, you need to ensure that after the information has been collected, its source cannot be identified.