Are there any Ethical Guidelines in Pyschological Research?


Ethics are norms of conduct. In terms of research, ethics are a set of rules that tell researchers what they should and shouldn't do. They exist because researchers might not be objective on whether a study might harm participants, among other things (McBride, 2010).

Nuremberg Code

When the second world war ended, the Nuremberg Code was developed. This code, which was created after the horrible experiments done by Nazis came to light, stated that researchers had to follow ten rules (Schuler, 1982).

1. Voluntary consent for participation in an experiment is required.
2. The research should yield fruitful results for the good of society.
3. The results should justify the methods of the study.
4. Researchers must avoid causing unnecessary harm.
5. If there is a priori reason to believe that harm would be a likely result, then the experiment should not be conducted. 
6. The results should be more important than the risks. 
7. The necessary precautions against harm shall be conducted. 
8. Experiments should only be conducted by qualified individuals.
9. The option to end a study should always be given to participants.
10. Researchers should end an experiment if they believe harm is imminent.  

       In 1953, the American Psychological Association (APA) and, in different years, other psychological associations developed their own set of ethical guidelines based on the Nuremberg Code. The APA added two important new rules. First, the harm due to deception should be reduced. Secondly, the data of participants should always be confidential. Nevertheless, the APA Code is constantly being revised due arguments on the ethics of several studies. Two of these studies are known to non-psychologists. They are the obedience study by Milgram and the prison study by Zimbardo. Milgram demonstrated that the majority of people would harm an individual if an authority told them to do it. The argument that stated that there was lack of ethics in the research was that participants were under great stress during the study. Zimbardo showed that behavior was influenced by the roles participants play. In the experiment, he created a mock prison in which participants that acted as guards behaved cruelly towards participants acting as prisoners. Critics state that prisoners should not have been placed under a stressful situation. These studies, as mentioned above, led to revision to the APA Code.

APA Code

       The current APA Code was developed in 2002, but has amendments from 2010. Because the Code is large I will not cover it in its entirety, but I will rather include  five rules that were not mentioned before. 

1. Research should be approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB).
2. Incentives should be  reasonable and not coercive. 
3. Data should be shared with others to allow verification of results.
4. Researchers should adhere to federal and local guidelines for care and treatment of animals.
5. Researchers should report data accurately and correct errors if they are discovered.

APA Code - Principles

       There are three principles that guide the APA Code of ethics. The principles are respect, beneficence, and justice (McBride, 2010).

   The first principle involves around the right of consent. Participants must be informed of the parts of the research, such as purpose and procedures. If this is not possible, then harm by deception should be reduced. The principle of respect also includes informing participants that they have the right to withdraw from an experiment and to ask questions about the study.

       The second principle, which is beneficence, revolves around reducing the risks of harm. This means stopping a study if necessary, that results must out weight possible harmful outcomes, and inhumane treatment should never be acceptable. The last principle is justice. This refers to every participant receiving an equal opportunity of obtaining the benefits of the study and to not select a certain group for harmful research.

Institutional Review Boards

       There are three types of categories of studies. They are exempt studies, expedited studies, and full-review studies. Exempt studies are usually the ones that involve little or no physical, psychological, or confidential risks.  Expedited studies are usually reviewed by only one member of the IRB and involves a small amount of risks such as a collection of blood or a questionnaire that could affect participants emotionally. The last type, which is full-review studies, involves high risk. This could mean that participants may not be able to give consent to the researcher such as with children or the study involves an invasive technique.  

The criteria for IRB approval are as follows (McBride, 2010):

1. Minimizing risks.
2. Risks should be justified by the results.
3. Participant selection is fair.
4. There is proof of voluntary consent by participants.
5. The researcher is monitoring the study to ensure participants' safety.
6. There is a high level of data confidentiality.
7. Procedures have to ensure the protection of rights.

Animal Research

       It is important to mention the ethical guidelines for animal research. Even though, the use of animals is minimal (7% to 8%) in psychological research, it still yields important results (APA, n.d.). Required criteria for animal research includes justification. This means that the study is using animals for a reason that outweighs any risks. Moreover, qualified individuals trained to handle animals are the only one that can use them in their research. In addition, researchers should take proper care of the animals before, during, and after a study. Furthermore, acquisition of animals should adhere to certain guidelines. Finally, the procedure in the study should minimize harm. The Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) oversees that researchers follow the proper procedures and ethical guidelines on animal subjects.

Reporting Research

       Ethical guidelines are not only limited to the procedure of a study, but they also include rules when reporting research. As mentioned before, researcher have to accurately report results. In addition, the concept of plagiarism is a critical factor in psychological research. Everything has to be given proper citation, from quotes to tables used. 

Violating the ethical guidelines

       Not adhering to the guidelines can have serious consequences. For example, Woo Suk Hwang falsely stated that he had been able to clone human stem cells (Bhattacharya, 2006). He now faces criminal charges in South Korea and has permanently damaged his career (McBride, 2010).

Feel free to leave a comment, questions, concerns, or suggestions.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Research with animals in psychology. Retrieved from

American Psychological Association. (n.d.) Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct. Retrieved December 7, 2015, from

Bhattacharya, S. (2006). Hwang faked all research on human stem cells. New Scientist, 10. Retrieved from

McBride, D. (2010). The process of research in psychology. Los Angeles: SAGE.