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Advanced Research Strategies

Research Ethics

Research ethics is a type of applied or professional ethics that addresses the questions, dilemmas, and issues related to the ethical conduct of scientific research. Topics that fall within the domain of research ethics range from practical problems, such as assigning authorship, to more abstract questions, such as resolving conflicts between normative principles. (Resnik, D.B. (2018). Research Ethics. In International Encyclopedia of Ethics).

Scandals such as falsified and fabricated data, conflict of interest in clinical trials and abuse and exploitation of human and animal subjects drove the development of the discipline of ethics research. 

Oxford English Dictionary defines ethics as the codes of conduct or moral principles recognized in a particular profession, sphere of activity, relationship, or other context or aspect of human life. These codes of conduct may vary across societies and countries. 

Further reading 

To support individual and course learning on this topic, explore recommended resources below. The databases offer access to varied publications including journals, books and technical reports. 

In Sage Research Methods Core Collection database, access such publications as The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics; Covert Research: The Art, Politics and Ethics of Undercover Fieldwork; Planning Ethically Responsible Research and more. 

Over time, ethical codes and research standards have been established to define ethical behavior in the conduct of research that involves human subjects. Many professional organizations have established codes that govern conduct around research. The Nuremburg Code, established in 1948, grew from atrocities in human research conducted in Nazi Germany. Though not officially accepted as law by any nation or as official ethics guidelines by any association, it is considered an important document in the history of clinical research ethics. Others include World Medical Association's Declaration of Helsinki, a statement of ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects, including research on identifiable human material and data; National Research Act, signed into law in the U.S in 1974, creating the National Commission for the protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which identified basic principles of research conduct and ways to ensure the principles were followed; and the Belmont Report that summarized the three ethical principles that should guide human research: respect for persons; beneficence; justice.

The Nuremburg Code and the related Declaration of Helsinki influenced the drafting of regulations promoted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to ensure ethical treatment of human research subjects, now codified in Part 46 of Title 45 of the Code of Federal Regulations, and known as the Common Rule

Some of the widely accepted pillars of ethical behavior within the scientific community include: 

  • confidentiality, anonymity, informed consent, voluntary participation, and disclosure of the purpose of study to participants
  • disclosure of how study data is analyzed and reported 
Further reading

Integrity in Scientific Research: Creating an Environment That Promotes Responsible Conduct. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2002. 2, Integrity in Research. National Research Council (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Assessing Integrity in Research Environments. Available from:

Fostering Integrity in Research. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2017 Apr 11. 9, Identifying and Promoting Best Practices for Research Integrity. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine; Policy and Global Affairs; Committee on Science, Engineering, Medicine, and Public Policy; Committee on Responsible Science. Available from:

Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR) resources from the US Dept of Health & Human Services, Office of Research Integrity. Available from  

History of Medical Ethics by R. Baker, in Editor(s): Ruth Chadwick, Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics (Second Edition), Academic Press, 2012,
Pages 61-69. 

What are Institutional Review Boards (IRBs)?

An Institutional Review Board, or IRB, reviews research studies to ensure that they comply with applicable regulations, meet commonly accepted ethical standards, follow institutional policies, and adequately protect research participants. The IRB has the authority to approve, disapprove or require modifications of research studies. IRBs are also referred to as Independent Review Boards or Ethics Review Committees.

Northwestern Institutional Review Board(IRB) office.

  • Access a new comprehensive educational tool in MyHR Learn, the Navigating Human Research Ethics & Regulatory Review course, which "offers an overview of the most salient topics in human research protections along with tips on conducting that work in the context of Northwestern University." Login with your Northwestern NetID to access the course’s 11 modules. Please note that this optional course is intended to support general IRB education and does NOT satisfy the Northwestern human research protections training requirements.
  • Human research protections training.

Northwestern Research Integrity office. 

Other Regulatory Agencies.

Further reading

What are IRBs? A 45 minutes lesson by Office for Human Research Protections, it explains the purpose and membership requirements of Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). This lesson focuses on the Revised Common Rule (or 2018 Requirements) that became effective in 2018.

Human Research Protection Program (HRPP) Resources - a compilation of educational resources tailored for different roles in human subjects research.

Institutional Review Board Approval as an Educational Tool. This editorial article discusses "the critical functions of IRBs and how the IRB application processes can promote learning, particularly regarding clarity of writing, formulating research questions, and the ethical imperatives of research". (Balon, R., Guerrero, A.P.S., Coverdale, J.H. et al. Institutional Review Board Approval as an Educational Tool. Acad Psychiatry 43, 285–289 (2019).)

Ethical Practices: Institutional Oversight and Enforcement. This article provides an overview of the history, development and regulations, composition and performance, hopes and hindrances related to the committees in the United States charged with the protection of human subjects in research studies. (Sophia F. Dziegielewski, Ethical Practices: Institutional Oversight and Enforcement,Editor(s): James D. Wright, International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), Elsevier, 2015,Pages 48-52.)