Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Ethics in the Research Context: Misinterpretation and Misplaced Misgivings

Academic journal article Canadian Psychology

Ethics in the Research Context: Misinterpretation and Misplaced Misgivings

Article excerpt


The Canadian Psychological Association Code of Ethics differs from many codes of conduct in that it is based on clearly-articulated Principles, Values, and Standards that constitute a "best practice" model, rather than on rules, regulations, and proscriptions/prescriptions (or a "worst practice" model). Our approach to ethical conduct issues can be seen to have extended beyond our discipline into the other social sciences, the other natural sciences, and the other biological/biomedical sciences -- in the arenas of research, if not also in other areas of practice. In order to bring about changes it is often useful to have external references and standards that have been approved by professional bodies, but documents, in themselves, are no guarantee that changes will occur in practice. Although 137 of the 153 Standards articulated in our Code relate to the conduct of research with human participants, it appears that there may be some confusion about how these Standards might be operationalized in the research context. The conduct of research is a social endeavour that is embedded in a number of social contexts described in this article. Conducting research with humans in fact establishes a social relationship with participants, a relationship that requires respect for the dignity and welfare of others. An elaboration on what "integrity in relationships" may mean in the context of psychological research is provided to assist in the operationalization of this Principle and in the examination of the values and motivations underlying our research culture.

The primary thesis of this article is that the 1991 Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists has the potential for making a significant contribution to changing the research culture in a way that will maximize the well-being of everyone involved. Instrumental in this process is CPA's proactive focus on Values and Principles, rather than merely on rules designed to minimize harm. Fundamental to this process is an understanding of what the Principle of Integrity in Relationships means in the research context. The implications of the evolving culture for ethical research are addressed more fully below.


In the period following World War II there was an increased awareness of the potential for abuse in research involving humans. In the 1947 Nuremberg Code, developed in response to the atrocities perpetrated "in the name of science", research with human participants was finally constrained within both ethical and legal limits (Tri-Council Working Group on Ethics, 1996). Even two decades after Nuremberg, however, it was not uncommon to find universities paying more attention to the conduct of research with laboratory animals than to research conducted with human animals(f.1).

Psychologists have not always been in the forefront of movements to enhance the integrity with which human participants are treated in the research context. The so-called "Crisis in Social Psychology" of the 1970s, following on the heels of the "Golden Age" of research in this area, was based -- in part -- on objections to the mistreatment of participants in psychological research. However, psychologists have responded to justified critiques, both with reactions to prevent the recurrence of unacceptable conduct and with more proactive policies and standards.

Approaches To Ethics: Rules Vs. Guidelines

As noted elsewhere, "Professional and research codes of ethics have tended to place major emphasis on rules of behaviour, often with minimal bottom line Do Nots and Dos" frequently accompanied by "(p)rocedures for adjudicating complaints and for imposing sanctions on those who are guilty of violations" (Stark[-Adamec] & Pettifor, 1995, p. A3). This "rules and sanctions" approach can be problematic in that: rules tend to proliferate as a function of the virtual impossibility of covering every conceivable situation that a researcher may encounter; the use of negative reinforcement may be less effective in modifying and maintaining prosocial behaviour than it may be in inducing strategies to circumvent the rules; and fear of detection of these "transgressions" can, in turn, escalate the rule-bending/-breaking. …

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