Learn How to Handle Sensitive Data in Your Psychology Research Projects

Learn How to Handle Sensitive Data in Your Psychology Research Projects

Principles for Research Ethics
Principles for Research Ethics

Although the environment surrounding psychologists and researchers is changing, becoming more open and transparent, people in these roles continue to face many ethical requirements, such as meeting professional, institutional and federal standards when conducting research involving human participants. Here are five principles from the American Psychological Association (APA) to help psychologists and researchers follow an ethical path.

1. Be upfront about intellectual property.

Because authorship is such a prevalent part of being a psychology researcher, claiming credit and getting published can be a highly competitive proposition. In addition, contributions from students and other researchers often occur organically and direction can change quickly, which has the potential to lead to the awkward dilemma of attributing credit where credit is due. That’s why the APA recommends that researchers discuss publication credit upfront with students and others. Some people are uncomfortable bringing it up — it’s like talking about money — but if everyone knows the plan and intention from the beginning, disputes are less likely to result as the research progresses. Putting a publication plan in writing is even better because then everyone involved has something to refer to and evaluate throughout the research process. Basic logic is at the core of the APA’s Ethics Code, which stipulates that psychologists and students alike only take credit for work they have actually performed or substantially contributed to. Simply having a high-level institutional position does not garner authorship. The work has to be yours to take credit for it.

2. Be aware of your influence and role.

In the field of research and psychology, there is are a lot of opportunities for people in power to play multiple roles, but they need to be cognizant of how that might have adverse effects. For example, a psychologist who recruits his or her students or clients as participants in a research study might not attain the most unbiased and objective results. Or a researcher who serves as both a mentor and a lab supervisor needs to remember not to influence students. If psychologists find themselves in situations where they are playing multiple roles and, in turn, somehow harming others or stunting the research process, they must remedy the situation immediately in compliance with the APA’s Ethics Code.

3. Observe informed-consent rules.

The consent process, when followed correctly, allows individuals who participate in research to be fully aware of what the research is for and what their involvement will entail. It reveals everything about the research — from its purpose, risks and benefits to expected duration, incentives and confidentiality parameters. If researchers don’t follow informed-consent rules intentionally because they are gathering spontaneous behavior, for example, they are required to offer a full debriefing afterward, and they should encourage participants to confirm their consent. All researchers should follow informed-consent rules, including avoiding offering excessive incentives, which could coerce participation and derail research efforts.

4. Uphold confidentiality and privacy rights.

Confidentiality and privacy are critical in the field of psychology. They offer safety and peace of mind to research participants, allowing researchers to ethically pursue the information they’re after. Researchers need to take the time to explain confidentiality to research participants so they understand what is protected and what protection is limited. It is also in a researcher’s best interest to get to know federal and state laws around privacy rights and his or her specific research endeavor because laws and rights can vary. To uphold confidentiality and privacy rights, researchers should take measures that ensure security, such as storing records in a secure area with limited access, and they should become technologically savvy so that the Internet is not a weak spot with the potential to compromise their participants’ confidentiality.

5. Know and use ethical resources.

Researchers have several resources available to them if they have questions about ethics or face ethical dilemmas. The Belmont Report and the APA’s Ethics Code are two reliable, long-standing options that offer general principles and specific guidance for research efforts. Another resource researchers often have but might overlook is their institutional review boards.

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