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STEP SIX

Research ethics

You may be able to learn about the ethical approach used in the main journal article (if this is discussed), but more often than not, it is better to focus on your own dissertation when it comes to setting out the approach towards research ethics you will take. At the undergraduate or master's level, the extent to which you will have to consider research ethics in your dissertation and the role that such ethics will play in shaping your research strategy will depend on a number of factors: (a) your dissertation and university ethics guidelines; (b) your chosen research method, the way that the research method is used, and the specific measures that are selected; and (c) your chosen sampling strategy, including the type of sampling technique used, your sample size, and the use of gatekeepers when selecting your sample.

CONSIDERATION #1
Your dissertation and university ethics guidelines

Whilst ethical requirements in research can vary across countries, there are a number of basic principles of research ethics that you will be expected to follow. Broadly speaking, your dissertation research should not only aim to do good (i.e., beneficence), but also avoid doing any harm (i.e., non-malfeasance). The five main ethical principles you should abide by, in most cases, include: (a) minimising the risk of harm; (b) obtaining informed consent; (c) protecting anonymity and confidentiality; (d) avoiding deceptive practices; and (e) providing the right to withdraw. In the article, Principles of research ethics in the Research Ethics section of the Fundamentals part of Lærd Dissertation, we explain these five basic principles in more detail. It is worth reading this article before reading on.

Following these basic principles is not only important for ethical reasons, but also practical ones, since a failure to meet such basic principles may lead to your research being (a) criticised, potentially leading to a lower mark, and/or (b) rejected by your supervisor or Ethics Committee, costing you valuable time. We mention your supervisor and the university Ethics Committee because the extent of the ethical requirements that you have to take into account will differ considerably from dissertation to dissertation. As a starting point, your dissertation guidelines should indicate whether you are required to complete an Ethics Proposal and/or Ethics Consent Form, even at the undergraduate or master's level, and if so, whether this should first be passed by your supervisor to see if ethical approval from the university Ethics Committee will be necessary. Even if such an Ethics Proposal is not required, it is still advisable to discuss the ethical implications of your dissertation with your supervisor; something that we discuss in STAGE SEVEN: Assessment point. At the very least, you will have to consider the role that research ethics will play in shaping your research strategy.

CONSIDERATION #2
The nature of the research method and measures you select

Research ethics is not a one size fits all approach. The research strategy that you choose to guide your dissertation often determines the approach that you should take towards research ethics. When we talk about an approach to research ethics, we are referring to ethical choices that you may make that are specific to your dissertation. For example, many students will be able to obtain informed consent from participants to take part in their research. However, there may be reasons that you cannot obtain informed consent from participants to take part, perhaps because the research design guiding your dissertation and the research method you use make this difficult or impossible (e.g., an experimental research design and the use of covert structured observation to study people in a nightclub or an Internet chat room).

When you consider the five practical ethical principles you read about earlier, it may appear obvious that your dissertation should include these. However, there are many instances where it is not possible or desirable to obtain informed consent from research participants. Similarly, there may be instances where you seek permission from participants not to protect their anonymity. More often than not, such choices should reflect the research strategy that you adopt to guide your dissertation. The potential ethical issues raised by different research methods not only differ from one type of research method to the next (e.g., surveys versus structured observation), but also the way in which a research method is used (e.g., overt versus covert observation) and your choice of measures (e.g., the specific questions that you ask in a survey). In each of our articles on different research methods, you can read up on the potential issues that your choice of research method will have for your dissertation (see the Research Methods section of the Fundamentals part of Lærd Dissertation and click on the relevant research method; there is a section on research ethics in each article).

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