Research Ethics Portal 2021-09-20T10:12:36+00:00

Eight Principles of Research Ethics


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SECRETARIAT: Ms D Nake (deborahn@vut.ac.za)

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The principle of non-maleficence (“do no harm”) expects of the research to make every effort to eliminate or reduce (and control) the potential harm the research might generate to humans, animals or the environment. Avoiding or minimizing harm to anyone or anything is a fundamental obligation of all researchers, and therefore will require thorough, sound and rigorous insight in to what is proposed or attempted in the process of research.

The principle of beneficence (“do good”) has two components.  Firstly, the research must have some benefit other than to the researcher.  Secondly, those that engage and contribute to the research need potentially to benefit within acceptable parameters.  Central to the rules of beneficence one should always take cognizance of the following:

This principle recognizes that all research holds the risk of causing harm.  The principle therefore insists that the risk of harm be considered against the potential benefit (both to participants and to the world). The benefit must significantly outweigh the harm to the participants (within the parameters of the law). Essentially what is being said is that whenever we try to help others, we inevitably risk harming them. It is, therefore, essential to balance the principles pf beneficence and non-maleficence to achieve net benefit. The risk-benefit ratio related to any intervention is therefore crucial.

Justice as a principal refers to fairness. The principle declares that research needs to be carried out within the confines of the law, that it should treat all involved fairly and openly, and that the necessity for the research be justified. Therefore, the researcher is obligated to show respect for morally acceptable laws; for people’s rights and fairness in distribution of resources.

Autonomy literally means “self-rule”. It refers to the right of every individual to make decisions for themselves. The principle protects the rights of the individual to decide to participate in a research project or not (see Informed Consent as well), free from pressure, coercion, contract or, within limits, cultural expectations. It should also be noted that a research ethics committee also protects the right and ‘autonomy’ of those that cannot grant consent, which would include animals and the environment.

This principle declares that any potential participant needs to have sufficient, accurate, comprehensible (to the participant) and honest information at their disposal to make an informed decision as to whether to participate in the research project or not, or to what extent. This principle applies both to direct participants and to the possible gatekeepers of those participants, where applicable. Fundamentally, what is required is a need for any participant’s agreement to participate in the research or data gathering for the purpose of the research. This is both an ethical and legal requirement.

This principle protects groups and situations from (a) being the target of too many research projects, and (b) that research that has already been completed is not repeated. In essence, this highlights the potential to or exploitation of the vulnerable and therefore, is seen as an unethical research practice.

Among the very basic principles that guide scientists or researchers, as well as many other scholars, are those expressed as respect for the integrity of knowledge, collegiality, honesty, objectivity, and openness. These principles are at work in the fundamental elements of the scientific method, such as formulating a hypothesis, designing an experiment to test the hypothesis, and collecting and interpreting data. In addition, more particular principles characteristic of specific scientific disciplines influences the methods of observation; the acquisition, storage, management, and sharing of data; the communication of scientific knowledge and information; and the training of younger scientists. How these principles are applied varies considerably among the several disciplines in which research is carried out. Therefore, this principle recognizes that science or scholarship that is flawed and therefore cannot offer trustworthy or credible insights or new knowledge is research that is ethically unacceptable, in other words bad science is unethical or ethically bad.