Chapter 2: Ethics in Research

2.2 Research on Human Participants: An Historical Look

Before we move on to examine some of the resources and guidelines that have been put in place to guide ethical approaches to research, it is important to look back in time to understand what has led us to this focus on ethical research.

Indeed, research on humans has not always been regulated in the way that it is today. History is rife with disturbing human experiments that continued without much law or policy intervention until after the end of World War II. It was at this time, in 1946, that the first trial involving twenty-three war criminals from Germany’s Third Reich, was held. These individuals, 20 of whom were doctors, faced trial for crimes against humanity, which included medical experiments on concentration camp inmates who were tortured and murdered during these experiments. Sixteen of the 23 defendants were eventually found guilty, and received sentences ranging from execution to 10 years’ imprisonment. The trials, conducted in Nuremberg, Germany, led to the creation of the Nuremberg Code in 1949 (see Shuster, 1997). The code, a 10-point set of research principles, was designed to guide doctors and scientists who conduct research on human participants. Today, the Nuremberg Code guides medical and other research conducted on human participants, including social scientific research. Here is a PDF of the Nuremberg Code.

Medical scientists are not the only researchers who have undertaken unethical research on humans. In the 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram (1974) conducted a series of experiments designed to understand obedience to authority, in which he tricked participants into believing they were administering an electric shock to other participants. In fact, the shocks were not real at all, but some, though not many, of Milgram’s research participants experienced extreme emotional distress after the experiment (Palys & Atchison, 2014). A reaction of emotional distress is understandable. The realization that one is willing to administer painful shocks to another human being just because someone who looks authoritative has told you to do so might indeed be traumatizing—even if you later learn that the shocks were not real. Here is a link to an interesting video on Milgram’s Obedience Experiment.

Around the same time that Milgram conducted his experiments, sociology graduate student Laud Humphreys (1970) was collecting data for his dissertation research related to the practice of men engaging in anonymous sexual encounters in public restrooms (known as the tearoom trade). Humphreys wished to understand who these men were and why they participated in the trade. To conduct his research, Humphreys offered to serve as a “watch queen,” the person who keeps an eye out for police and was then able to watch the sexual encounters in local park washrooms in major metropolitan areas in the United States. What Humphreys did not do was identify himself as a researcher to his research participants. Instead, he watched his participants for several months, getting to know several of them, learning more about the tearoom trade practice and, without the knowledge of his research participants, jotting down their license plate numbers as they pulled into or out of the parking lot near the restroom. After participating as a watch queen, with the help of several insiders who had access to motor vehicle registration information, Humphreys used those license plate numbers to obtain the names and home addresses of his research participants. Then, disguised as a public health researcher, Humphreys visited his participants in their homes and interviewed them about their lives and their health.

Humphreys’ research dispelled a good number of myths and stereotypes about the tearoom trade and its participants. He learned, for example, that over half of his participants were married to women and many of them did not identify as gay or bisexual. However, once Humphreys’ work became public, it created a quite a controversy … at his home university (e.g., the chancellor tried to have his degree revoked), among sociologists in general, and among members of the public, as it raised public concerns about the purpose and conduct of sociological research.

In the original version of his report, Humphreys defended the ethics of his actions. In 2008, years after Humphreys’ death, his book was reprinted with the addition of a retrospective on the ethical implications of his work (see Humphreys, 2008). In his written reflections on his research and the fallout from it, Humphreys maintained that his tearoom observations constituted ethical research on the grounds that those interactions occurred in public places. But Humphreys added that he would conduct the second part of his research differently. Rather than trace license numbers and interview unwitting tearoom participants in their homes under the guise of public health research, Humphreys instead would spend more time in the field and work to cultivate a pool of informants. Those informants would know that he was a researcher and would be able to fully consent to being interviewed. In the end, Humphreys concluded that “there is no reason to believe that any research participants have suffered because of my efforts, or that the resultant demystification of impersonal sex has harmed society” (p. 231).

Other landmark ethics in research examples include the Stanford Prison Experiment, also in the 1970s, and the 1990s case of Russell Ogden and Simon Fraser University, British Columbia, Canada. Here are some links you may wish to explore:

The case of Scott DeMuth, graduate student (Jaschik, 2009)

Scott DeMuth was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota in the United States of America. Mr. DeMuth was undertaking research about radical animal rights and environmental groups. In 2004, the University of Iowa’s animal research laboratory was vandalized and rodents under study were removed from the lab. The Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for the attack. Many of the professors and graduate students working in the lab lost years of their work in the vandalism.

When it became know that Mr. DeMuth had been undertaking research with groups who were sympathetic to radical animal rights and environmental groups, he was ordered to appear before the grand jury hearing on the vandalism and theft of animals. It was believed that he had knowledge of who might have been involved in the attacks. When he refused to reveal what he knew about the University of Iowa incident, he was briefly jailed. DeMuth maintained that his knowledge of animal rights groups was based upon his pledges of confidentiality to participants who spoke with him. After he was released from prison, he was charged with conspiracy to commit “animal enterprise terrorism” and for “damage to the animal enterprise.”

Academic freedom is at issue here.. When researchers undertake research, they promise confidentiality to their participants. If DeMuth had agreed to reveal what he knew, he would have breached his promise and lost the trust of his participants. Researchers have an obligation to ensure that they protect confidential information, including the identity of their participants (unless the participants agree otherwise). In fact, the American Sociological Association’s Code of Ethics (2009) reads as follows:

Sociologists have an obligation to ensure that confidential information is protected. They do so to ensure the integrity of research and the open communication with research participants and to protect sensitive information obtained in research, teaching, practice, and service. When gathering confidential information, sociologies should take into account the long-term uses of the information, including its potential placement in public archives or the examination of the information by other researchers or practitioners (p. 11).Beyond these ethical issues outlined above, there can also be legal implications to undertaking research.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with Mr. DeMuth´s position? Do you think a promise of confidentiality takes precedence when the law has been broken? What are the implications for researchers who promise confidentiality to their research participants and then reveal their sources either willingly, accidentally, or because believe they have no choice not to?

As should be evident by now, these studies and others led to increasing public awareness of and concern for research undertaken on human participants. In 1974, the US Congress enacted the National Research Act, which created the National Commission for the Protection of Human Participants in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The commission produced The Belmont Report [PDF], a document outlining basic ethical principles for research on human participants (National Commission for the Protection of Human Participants in Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1979). The National Research Act also required that all institutions receiving federal support establish institutional review boards (IRBs) to protect the rights of human research participants (1974) (see National Research Service AwardActof1974[PDF]). Since that time, many organizations beyond those receiving federal support have also established review boards to evaluate the ethics of the research that they conduct. Do you think a promise of confidentiality takes precedence when the law has been broken? What are the implications for researchers who promise confidentiality to their research participants and then reveal their sources either willingly, accidentally, or because believe they have no choice not to?


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