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Ethical Considerations in Primary Research

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Primary research is conducted all of the time--journalists use it as their primary means of reporting news and events; national polls and surveys discover what the population thinks about a particular political figure or proposal; and companies collect data on their consumer base and market trends. When conducting research in an academic or professional setting, you need to be aware of the ethics behind your research activity.

Here are some specific points to consider:

  • You should have the permission of the people who you will be studying to conduct research involving them.
  • Not all types of research require permission—for example, if you are interested in analyzing something that is available publicly (such as in the case of commercials, public message boards, etc) you do not necessarily need the permission of the authors.
  • You don’t want to do anything that would cause physical or emotional harm to your subjects. This could be something as simple as being careful how you word sensitive or difficult questions during your interviews.
  • Objectivity vs. subjectivity in your research is another important consideration. Be sure your own personal biases and opinions do not get in the way of your research and that you give both sides fair consideration.
  • Many types of research, such as surveys or observations, should be conducted under the assumption that you will keep your findings anonymous. Many interviews, however, are not done under the condition of anonymity. You should let your subjects know whether your research results will be anonymous or not.
  • When you are doing research, be sure you are not taking advantage of easy-to-access groups of people (such as children at a daycare) simply because they are easy to access. You should choose your subjects based on what would most benefit your research.
  • Some types of research done in a university setting require Institutional Board Approval. This means that your research has to be approved by an ethics review committee to make sure you are not violating any of the above considerations.
  • When reporting your results be sure that you accurately represent what you observed or what you were told. Do not take interview responses out of context and do not discuss small parts of observations without putting them into the appropriate context.