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Understanding why research ethics matters

24 Apr 2019 | DR SAMANTHA NEWBERY Dr Samantha Newbery, Chair of Research Ethics for the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media, shares her experiences of developing students’ understanding of why, and in what ways, ethics are important in research.

Dr Samantha Newbery, Chair of Research Ethics for the University of Salford’s School of Arts and Media, shares her experiences of developing students’ understanding of why, and in what ways, ethics are important in research.


Tell students, or indeed staff, that they have to attend training in research ethics and their eyes are likely to glaze over. This poses a challenge to those of us responsible for this training: how do we convince students that research ethics is an important subject?

Past research projects that raise clear ethical issues can persuade students that they must comply with the principles of research ethics. Two psychology experiments are particularly appropriate here: the 1961-2 Milgram Experiment, in which participants were led to believe they were administering electric shocks, and the 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, in which participants became prisoners and guards in a mock prison. 

The Case Studies

The Milgram and Stanford case studies illustrate why ethical principles must be observed and highlight some of the key ethical principles that are applicable to research undertaken across a wide variety of academic disciplines. In addition to this, there is original audio-visual material from both experiments that can be used in the classroom1. This audio-visual material heightens the effect of these case studies on students.

That students engage with this audio-visual material is evident in how well they are able to identify some of the key ethical issues raised by these research projects before the training session even addresses those principles of research ethics.

The Milgram Experiment

In the Milgram Experiment, research participants were designated ‘teachers’ and paired with a ‘learner’. The teachers were instructed to administer an electric shock each time the learner answered a question incorrectly, incrementally increasing the voltage of these shocks. Some teachers went so far as to deliver shocks of 450 volts, the maximum the machine could produce. Original footage of this experiment shows the discomfort this caused some of the participants.

They were not told until after the experiment that the learner was in fact an actor and that the real purpose of the study was to research obedience to authority by seeing how far they would go in response to the experimenter’s commands. One of the key principles of research ethics was therefore missing from this experiment: informed consent. Research participants must be fully informed as to the purposes of a study before they participate.

The Stanford Prison Experiment

Philip Zimbardo’s experiment illustrates apparent disregard for another key principle of research ethics: the voluntary nature of participation. Here, university students were recruited as participants in an experiment into how good people behave in bad environments. A mock prison was set up in the basement of Stanford University’s psychology department and participants were allocated the role of prisoner or guard.

Prisoners quickly began to taunt the guards and guards began to harass the prisoners. One prisoner – whose thoughts can be found in original audio recordings from the experiment and a subsequent documentary interview – requested to leave the experiment. His request was initially refused, causing him severe distress. As well as causing harm, this refusal is at odds with the principle we are familiar with today that states participants must cooperate willingly and can withdraw their cooperation at any time.


Although both of these case studies are from the discipline of psychology, they highlight issues that are relevant to any research that uses human participants. They help achieve the intended learning outcomes of a research ethics training session: to develop an understanding of the key principles of research ethics; and to develop an understanding that research can pose risks to participants. There can also be risks to researchers, including to their reputations, and risks to the university’s reputation. That research can threaten reputations and can be illustrated in class using some of the many embarrassing and easily-located newspaper articles that publicise research projects that have gone wrong.

Students leave this type of training session equipped with the skills to identify the risks their future research might have to participants, to themselves and to the university. This encourages research design that gives careful consideration to research ethics requirements.

Given students’ initial reluctance to accept that ethics are important to their research, focusing on completing a research ethics application form is not the most effective way to run research ethics training. A more effective approach to achieving the intended learning outcomes is to use high-impact case studies supported by original audio-visual material.


The author is grateful for feedback on this work from delegates at the 2018 Political Studies Association Annual Conference and the 2018 International Association For Intelligence Education’s Europe Chapter Conference.

1‘Obedience’, narrated by Stanley Milgram, c.1963. Available, for example, at See also: Stanley Milgram, ‘Behavioural study of obedience’, Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 1963, 67/4, pp.371-8; ‘The Stanford Prison Experiment’, produced and directed by Kim Duke, broadcast 11 May 2002, BBC2 England, available via the Box of Broadcasts database.

Dr Samantha Newbery belongs to the University of Salford’s Politics and Contemporary History Subject Group. She is author of Interrogation, Intelligence and Security (2015), Programme Leader for the MA in Terrorism and Security by distance learning and Chair of Research Ethics for the School of Arts and Media.


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