Ethical Standards Of Research

The study of behavioral development involves the use of both human research subjects of all ages and animals from chicken embryos to monkeys and apes. Research strategies exist on a continuum that ranges from nonobtrusive naturalistic observation to the direct experimental manipulation of the subject’s internal or external environment. As the range moves from observation to experiment, the potential of lasting impact or risk of harm to the research subjects increases. Throughout the history of experimental science, in the 20th and 21st centuries in particular, researchers, philosophers, and ethicists have reflected on this fact and have offered ethical guidance in the form of principles to be considered during the planning and execution of research. Some principles are general in their concern, while others are more specifically focused on the treatment of either human or animal subjects. In addition, the principles themselves vary in terms of the specificity of their content. Some are quite broad (e.g., respect persons), while others are directly limited in scope (e.g., reduce the degree of risk).

General Ethical Considerations

  1. Research is the  Province  of  Professionals. A “profession” obligates its members in ways that go beyond that which is required by other important For example, members of research professions (a) must have acquired the specialized knowledge and skills that are required to carry out research activities; (b) must agree to be governed by the relevant codes of ethical conduct (see the American Psychological Association, Society for Research in Child Development for specific standards); (c) are required to police other members of the profession for compliance to applicable ethical codes, laws, and regulations; and (d) have special obligations to protect and improve the “public good.”
  1. Regulation. Researchers are fully familiar with the relevant law and codes of federal regulation that govern the conduct of research.
  1. Justification. There is  no  inherent  “right”  to conduct research. Research that impacts sentient beings is undertaken to advance the body of important knowledge and the well-being of humans and not to satisfy the personal curiosity of the researcher.
  1. Pre-review. Researchers seek out review of their research by knowledgeable members of the research community and the general public prior to the actual conduct of the research. This process helps to ensure that the research has proper justification, is adequately designed, and contains the proper protections for the designated research participants. Federal law requires that human research be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) and animal research by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC).
  1. Communication. Researchers work to accurately communicate the results and implications of their work.
  1. Conflicts of Interest. Researchers who have significant financial conflicts that might influence or bias the conduct or interpretation of their research disclose these conflicts and work to eliminate their impact.
  1. Education. Researchers ensure that co-workers and students involved in the conduct of research are properly trained and supervised.

Ethical Principles And Animal Research

The ethical issues that surround the use of animals in behavioral research have a contentious history. The controversy involves two fundamental issues: whether animal research is necessary to understanding human behavior and if animals have what is called “moral standing.” Moral standing refers to whether or not, or to what degree, an entity “deserves” protection by the moral and ethical norms of a society. Some philosophers have argued that animals have “rights” of absolute noninterference by virtue of their rudimentary sense of self. Others have taken the position that if an animal is capable of feeling pain, this capability must be taken into ethical account when considering whether it is acceptable to use it as sources of scientific knowledge. The current consensus is that since some animal research has contributed to the understanding of human behavior, it must continue until valid alternatives are found. However, since typical experimental animals clearly are capable of experiencing pain and distress, they do require some level of ethical protection. In addition to the general ethical considerations described earlier, research with animals should also be guided by the following principles. The heart of these principles is derived from an important book published in 1959 by William Russell and Rex Burch, The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique.

  1. Alternatives. Researchers strive to replace animals with alternative experimental methods whenever possible. If animals are to be used in research, they must be animals whose behavioral and psychological characteristics are relevant to the purpose of the study. Using animals just as a matter of convenience is ethically inappropriate.
  1. Pain. The impact of pain and distress on animals must be estimated for each experiment and minimized to the greatest extent possible. Causing unrelieved pain or distress for experimental purposes requires special justification.
  1. Numbers. If the use of animals is justified, only the minimum number of animals necessary to execute a valid experiment should be used.
  1. Husbandry. Animals have evolved preferences for types of food, patterns of eating, social relationships, environmental quality, etc. that ought to be accommodated to the extent possible both for the comfort of the animals and the quality of the science.

Ethical Principles And Human Research

The evolution of the ethical principles of human research is unfortunately a history grounded in examples of the exploitation of vulnerable populations and failure to ensure that subjects were properly informed about the nature of the research and the risks associated with participation. The Nuremberg Code (1947) was published following the war trials of a group of Nazi researchers.

The code emphasized that researchers be adequately trained, risks to participants be minimized, and decisions to participate be voluntary and based on adequate information. In the United States, the revelation in 1972 that a group of impoverished Black men suffering from syphilis had, unbeknownst to them, been part of a study of the long-term effects of untreated syphilis was a reminder that problems in research conduct were not just a matter of authoritarian governments and the environment of war. As a consequence, the National Research Act was passed in 1974, which called for the formation of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The commission was charged with deriving the ethical foundation of human research in the United States. In 1979, the Belmont Report was published. The report states that human research supported by the federal government is guided by three principles:

  1. Respect for Persons. This principle emphasizes that showing respect requires that researchers recognize that potential participants are autonomous agents who must be fully informed about the details of the research so that they may validly apply their values to the decision to participate. This responsibility holds regardless of the perceived importance or urgency of the Again, there is no “right” to perform research, only rights of subjects to accept or decline to participate. This principle also requires that subjects whose ability to understand and decide may be underdeveloped or impaired (e.g., young children, demented elderly) must be protected from exploitation. When children or incompetent adults are involved as research subjects, their representatives must assume the burden of protection. This principle has led to the specific formulations of the process of obtaining informed consent. The process of informed consent involves:

a. Disclosure of the purpose of the research and the details of the procedures to which subjects will be exposed.

b. Ensuring that potential research subjects are competent and understand the disclosed information.

Ensuring that the recruitment environment supports voluntary decisions to participate or not.

  1. Beneficence. This principle  highlights  the responsibility to conduct research for a purpose that advances the welfare of people, both with respect to a specific project and to the research enterprise in general. This is accomplished by carefully estimating the risks and benefits and minimizing the risks to the greatest extent possible. This principle has been formalized as the requirement to create and examine the risk/benefit ratio before initiating a research project.
  1. Justice. Historically, the poor and underprivileged have shouldered the majority of the risks while accruing few of the benefits of research. Justice is the responsibility to ensure that the burdens of research as well as the benefits are distributed fairly throughout society. Specifically, this principle is reflected in the way subjects are recruited.


  1. American Psychological Association. (2002). Ethical principles of psychologists and code of conduct. Retrieved from
  2. Brody, (1998). The ethics of biomedical research: An international perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Gluck, P., DiPasquale, T., & Orlans, F. B. (2002). Applied ethics in animal research: Philosophy, regulation, and laboratory applications. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
  4. Jonas, H. (1970). Philosophical reflections on experimenting with human subjects. In P. Freund (Ed.), Experimentation with human subjects (pp. 1–31). New York: Braziller.
  5. National Institutes of Health, Office of Human Subjects Research. (1979). Regulations and ethical guidelines: The Belmont Report. Retrieved from
  6. Sales, B. D., & Folkman, S. (2000). Ethics in research with human Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  7. Society for Research in Child Dev (n.d.). Ethical standards for research with children. Retrieved from