Malaysian and American Students' Perceptions of Research Ethics

Article excerpt

Differences in perceptions of research ethics between Malaysian and American students were assessed using a questionnaire that measured perceptions of voluntary informed consent for adults and children, assessment of the risk/benefit ratio, issues of deception, and issues of privacy and confidentiality. As predicted, Malaysian students had less conservative attitudes than American students. This difference may be a result of the role the individual plays in each society or behavioral research history of each country. Demographic characteristics such as research experience with humans and research ethics exposure, as well as response acquiescence also may have influenced the outcome.

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Codes formalizing ethical treatment of human participants in both behavioral and medical research are fairly recent. The Nuremberg Trials (1946-1949), held by an American military tribunal as a consequence of crimes committed against prisoners of war by Nazi physicians during World War II, resulted in the establishment of the Nuremberg Code (Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No. 10, 1949). This code outlines ten principles that must be followed in order for research with humans to be justified. The main principles require voluntary informed consent of the participant, research designed to be beneficial to society in general, and protection of participants from harm. To provide a broader scope than the Nuremberg Code, in 1964, the World Medical Association adopted the Declaration of Helsinki that established guidelines for physicians conducting biomedical research with human participants. The most recent revision was made in 1992 (World Medical Association, 1992).

International guidelines for treatment of human research participants set forth by the Nuremberg Code and the Declaration of Helsinki are occasionally supplemented by national standards. For example, in 1973, the American Psychological Association (APA) first published guidelines that specifically addressed how human research participants were to be treated in behavioral research (APA, 1973). The most recent APA Ethics Code was revised in 1992 (APA, 1992). By 1977, Canada, the Federal Republic of Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, Poland, Austria, Sweden, and France also had adopted ethical codes that addressed research with human participants, although many of the codes were still in preparation (Schuler, 1982). Kimmel's (1996) informal survey added Australia, Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and Iceland), Slovenia, Spain, and Switzerland to the list of countries that reported having a formal ethics code that addressed psychological research issues. Leach and Harbin (1997) reported additional countries that had adopted an ethics code including; Chile, China, Dominican Republic, Hong Kong, Israel, New Zealand, Singapore, and South Africa. Comparison of codes of ethics internationally reveals some consistencies with respect to research issues. However, differences in professional standards exist, most notably between Western countries (e.g., the United States, Canada) and the few Eastern countries (e.g., China, Singapore) that have reported adopting formal ethics codes (Leach & Harbin, 1997).

The tenets of voluntary informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, etc., have been formulated and adopted by societies that have a strong tradition of treasuring and protecting the individual, such as the United States. In American society, concern for individual rights and the fear of litigation have made researchers very sensitive to ethical codes. In some cases, such concerns have led to the termination or disruption of potentially valuable research. A civil suit, Merrikan v. Cressman (as cited in Boruch & Cecil, 1979) resulted in the termination of a high school drug prevention program for fear that students' records would not be kept confidential. More recently there has been controversy regarding the need for appropriate placebo control groups in which treatment is withdrawn or withheld and research participants' understanding of their potential assignment to a control group. …