Ethical research – teacher notes

Attention now turns specifically to research ethics, explored through three activities and illustrated by two case studies

Activity 2: A virtuous researcher

In this short activity there is no right answer – no definitive list. The point is rather that students should think about what it might mean to be virtuous in the context of doing research. They are likely to list traits such as ‘fair’, ‘honest’ and ‘considerate’ as applying to the character of a virtuous researcher, and there is likely to be considerable agreement between students.

Activity 3: Research ethics and ethical frameworks

For this activity, students will each need a copy of the Wellcome Trust EPQ ethics guide. If working on hard copy, they will each need access to three different colours of highlighter pen.

The main aim here is to get students to read the guide, to engage with its content and to gain some familiarity with the three ethical frameworks. Students should each be able to point to at least one place in the guide that refers to each of the frameworks.

The two case studies presented here are intended to show how easily things can go (ethically) wrong when students perhaps get carried away or encounter a problem. It is worth pointing out that in many ways Mindi and Ethan were conscientious students and, at least to start with, their case studies illustrate a good approach to project work.

Activity 4: Why is that wrong?

Students should be able to see that Ethan violated the ethical research guidelines about informed consent. In this particular example, the situation was made worse by the party-goers being recorded behaving in ways that they might later find embarrassing and would not wish to be recorded. Even if they later said they did not mind, that would still not make Ethan’s actions acceptable. Emphasise to students that informed consent must be obtained in advance, not retrospectively.

Using a utilitarian approach, it can be argued that Ethan’s actions were likely to make many of the party-goers unhappy, so what he did was wrong. From a rights-and-duties perspective, it can be argued that people have a right to privacy, and being recorded in what they thought was a ‘private’ situation violates that right. And it is hard to argue that filming alcohol-fuelled party-goers without their knowledge or consent is something that a virtuous person would do.

In Mindi’s case, her questionnaire upset people and made them unhappy, so was unacceptable from a utilitarian perspective. The questions violated people’s right to a private family life, and a virtuous person would be more considerate and respectful of sensitive issues concerning family relationships and health.

Mindi’s project illustrates the importance of considering the likely impact of research on the people asked to take part. While ethical concerns can arise in any area of study, research relating to family, health, culture or religion is particularly likely to involve sensitive issues.

Students might wonder which framework they should use. There is no best one. Rather, students should develop a questioning approach to ethical issues rather than rely on any framework to tell them what to do. The frameworks are most useful to help students articulate reasons for a particular ethical decision.

Further work

This extension work suggests possible starting-points for a literature research EPQ exploring research ethics.


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects’ in October 2016.

Statistics and maths, Careers, Psychology
Go Further: A practical guide to extended science projects
Education levels:
16–19, Independent research projects, Continuing professional development