In general, researchers should be honest with their research participants.  However, in some studies researchers are not honest. Sometimes researchers intentionally withhold critical information and sometimes they outright lie.  Deception of participants can be quite controversial, yet researchers continue using deception because it can offer the opportunity to study behavior that would otherwise be difficult to observe.  In this post, I’ll describe both the ethical issues raised by studies using deception and how these issues can be partially mitigated by debriefing.  After that, I’ll describe some of the scientific — as opposed to ethical — issues raised by deception.  Finally, I’ll provide a quick checklist you should use before starting a study using deception.

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minimal risk

Participants are exposed to risk by taking part in research studies, and researchers should always consider these risks carefully. When considering a particular study, a natural first reaction is to ask whether the research exposes participants to any risks at all. While this reaction is well-meaning, it turns out to be not very useful. Quickly you will decide that all human subjects research could potentially cause some harm or discomfort. For example, even a simple survey collecting demographic information could possibly cause some person some discomfort. For this reason, a much more useful standard in research ethics is minimal risk. Roughly, minimal risk asks how the risks of the research study compare to the risks that people experience in their everyday life.

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informed consent and terms-of-serivce agreements

In an earlier post, I argued that the general principles of research ethics proposed in the Belmont Report in 1979 could help inform our debates about ethical challenges in modern, online research.  For example, there has been some recent debate about whether website terms-of-service agreements should constitute informed consent for experimentation.  To try to answer this question, let’s go back to the Belmont Report.

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informed consent

A central tenant of research ethics is informed consent. True informed consent puts most studies on very sound ethical footing. However, it is not always clear what constitutes informed consent. Further, in some specific cases, existing rules allow for research to proceed without informed consent. In this post, I’ll describe some of the principles from the Belmont Report that relate to informed consent. Then, I will show the specific parts of the Common Rule that relate to informed consent. Finally, I’ll summarize some commentary on the way the Common Rule handles informed consent.

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The Belmont Report: Three principles for ethical research

Research ethics for lab-based psychology experiments are relatively well-establish. Research ethics for online field experiments, on the other hand, are still a subject of great disagreement, as was illustrated by the recent debates over the Facebook emotional contagion experiment. Because the tools of digital experimentation will evolve more quickly than shared norms about research ethics, we are likely to continue to confront disagreements about research ethics for some time to come. When making decisions about the ethics of our own research — and having debates about research ethics in the digital age more broadly — researchers should make use of existing principles of ethical research that have already been developed. Although the specific ethical issues that we face are new, the general problems are very old.

One excellent source of existing wisdom about research ethics is the Belmont Report, which was published in 1979. Commissioned by the US Government in response to ethical failures in medical research, such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Belmont Report was written by a panel of experts and proposes three principles that should underlying the ethical conduct of research involving human subjects: 1) Respect for persons; 2) Beneficence; and 3) Justice. These three principles, which are somewhat abstract in the Report, were later operationalized into the the detailed rules and procedures that make up the Common Rule, which governs research at US universities. When facing a research ethics challenge, going back to these three principles can often be very helpful.

    • Respect for Persons

The Belmont Report argues that respect for persons consists of two distinct principles: individuals should be treated as autonomous and individuals with diminished autonomy should be entitled to additional protections. The principle of respect for persons is interpreted to mean that researchers should, if possible, receive informed consent from participants, and the Belmont Report identifies three elements of informed consent: information, comprehension, and voluntariness. That is, respect for persons implies that participants should be presented with relevant information in a comprehensible format and then should voluntarily agree to participate.

    • Beneficence

Beneficence can roughly be understood to mean having the interests of research participants in mind. The principle of beneficence is behind efforts by researchers to minimize risks to participants and maximize benefits to participants and society. For example, when considering a research design, the principle of beneficence should cause us to ask if there is another way that we could obtain the same knowledge but with lower risks to participants.

    • Justice

The principle of justice addresses the distribution of the burdens and benefits of research. That is, it should not be the case that one group in society bears the costs of research while another group reaps its benefits. Issues of justice arise most strongly around questions about the selection of participants.

Applying these three principles to specific ethical situations can be difficult, and the principles sometimes come into conflict. However, even if they do not lead to clear decisions in all cases, keeping these three principles in mind helps clarify the issues.


Update: If you would like to read more about the ethics of social research, you can read Chapter 6 of my book Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age.