Values and Concepts of Ethics for Research Involving Humans

1. Introduction

Ethics in research, like ethics in general, is based on values. Values are abstract concepts, like truth, dignity and fairness, which are widely considered to be of the greatest importance for human well-being. One of the most important statements of values is the 1948 United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The role of Research Ethics Committees (RECs) is to ensure that the human rights of participants in research are respected.

Values are often expressed as principles. For the purpose of this training material, the following is a list of principles of ethics that help to protect human rights and dignity and are discussed further in the document below and next lesson:
  • Justify the inclusion of humans in research by ensuring social value and scientific validity.

  • Bring about more good than harm.

  • Promote the interests of humans who participate in research before the interests of science and society.

  • Ensure voluntary participation - participants must be able to choose to take on the risks of research.

  • Distribute the risks and potential benefits of research fairly.

  • Show ongoing respect for persons.

  • Uphold transparency during the research process.
Because principles of ethics are, by their nature, fairly general, they need to be interpreted and applied to specific situations. One role of ethics is to show how general principles apply in specific situations. When the principles appear to conflict, it is the role of ethics and ethics review committees to identify and manage such conflicts.

There is a rich literature on ethics and its application to research. The analysis and discussion of principles of ethics in these philosophical texts can be useful to RECs faced with new or complex challenges when reviewing research protocols or applying regulations.