Understanding Research Ethics: More Than Just Following Rules

Understanding Research Ethics: More Than Just Following Rules

Applying for ethics clearance for your research can feel like at best like an administrative hurdle, and at worst like a barrier to getting on with meaningful work. However, if you take the principles of ethical research seriously, it can not only improve the ethics of your research but also improve its quality. This blog tells you how.

Defining Research Ethics

If you are conducting research with humans or animals, you have to apply for ethics clearance. Research ethics are fundamentally about safeguarding the dignity, rights, and welfare of research participants. The Australian ethics system and RMIT University emphasise four core ethical values:

Respect is the recognition of the intrinsic value and autonomy of all individuals. This involves acknowledging participants' rights to make informed decisions regarding their involvement in research.

Research merit and integrity ensure that studies are conducted with honesty, rigour, and transparency. Research must be worthwhile and contribute valuable knowledge to justify the involvement of participants.

Justice entails fairness in the recruitment and involvement of participants. It ensures equitable distribution of both the benefits and burdens of research, safeguarding against exploitation.

Beneficence focuses on maximizing potential benefits while minimizing possible harms. Researchers must carefully assess the balance between the benefits of their work and the risks posed to participants.

I find that most students get stuck on the 'justice' part of ethical research conduct, but the other four principles are equally important.

Don't negate the risks of your research: face up to them

A crucial aspect of research ethics is the thorough assessment and management of risk. This involves identifying potential harms, evaluating their likelihood and severity, and implementing strategies to mitigate them. Risks can vary from physical harm to psychological discomfort or inconvenience.

I often observe doctoral students trying to convey low risks, instead of being upfront about the potential risks their research might have for participants. You can't mitigate risks unless you name them.

Across Australian universities, the responsibility for risk assessment is shared between researchers and institutional bodies. Researchers are tasked with identifying and managing risks within their projects, while Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) oversee this process to ensure that the level of risk is appropriate relative to the potential benefits.

The Consent Process

Obtaining informed consent is a cornerstone of ethical research. Participants must be provided with comprehensive information about the study's purpose, methods, risks, and potential benefits. Consent is not merely a procedural formality but a mutual agreement and understanding. Depending on the research context, consent may be given orally, in writing, or implied through actions, such as the return of a completed survey.

However, ethics is so much more than just gaining consent.

Reimbursing Participants

Reimbursement for participants' time, travel, and other expenses is generally appropriate and can be a part of ethical research practice. However, it is essential to ensure that any payment does not become an undue inducement, potentially leading participants to accept risks they would otherwise avoid.

Image of reimbursing research participants: image created with Dall-e


From Data Collection to Data Engagement

A more nuanced approach to research involves transitioning from traditional data collection to data engagement. Traditional data collection views data as pre-existing and objective, merely needing to be gathered. This perspective can overlook the complexities and subjectivities inherent in the research process.

Data engagement, however, recognizes that data is not neutral or objective. It is influenced by the researchers and the contexts in which it is collected. This approach encourages researchers to reflect on their role in creating data and to consider the ethical implications of their methods and interpretations.

Be honest about power dynamics

Engaging with data ethically means acknowledging and addressing the power dynamics and socio-economic and political contexts that shape research. It involves making deliberate, ethical choices throughout the research process, from design to dissemination.

Embracing Pragmatism, Compassion, and Joy in Research

Incorporating values such as pragmatism, compassion, and joy can significantly enhance the research process:

Pragmatism involves being practical and responsive, negotiating shared purposes with participants, and recognizing the constraints and contexts that influence research.

Compassion entails empathizing with participants, engaging with their emotions and experiences, and acting with care and kindness. This relational approach fosters trust and respect.

Joy in research reflects the commitment to the enhancement of life and the discovery process. It encourages innovative thinking and actions, making the research journey not only impactful but also fulfilling.


Adhering to research ethics involves more than compliance with guidelines; it embodies a commitment to conducting research that respects human dignity, ensures fairness, and aims to benefit society. By integrating these ethical principles into their work, researchers can produce valuable, rigorous, and ethically sound research.





Professor Shelley Marshall - Business and Human Rights Research Centre

14 June 2024


14 June 2024


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Acknowledgement of Country

RMIT University acknowledges the people of the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung language groups of the eastern Kulin Nation on whose unceded lands we conduct the business of the University. RMIT University respectfully acknowledges their Ancestors and Elders, past and present. RMIT also acknowledges the Traditional Custodians and their Ancestors of the lands and waters across Australia where we conduct our business - Artwork 'Luwaytini' by Mark Cleaver, Palawa.