Ethical research – activities and case studies

In the context of your EPQ, it is particularly relevant to consider how ethical frameworks relate to research, as illustrated in the following activities 

Activity 2: A virtuous researcher

What do you think are the characteristics that would make someone a virtuous researcher? Spend a few minutes making a list of ‘research virtues’, then compare notes with other students.

The EPQ ethics guide produced by the Wellcome Trust summarises the regulations and guidelines that govern how researchers should work and shows how research ethics relate to the EPQ. (Note that the EPQ ethics guide focuses on issues that are relevant to particular types of project, rather than setting out general rules of behaviour such as avoiding plagiarism.)

Activity 3: Research ethics and ethical frameworks

Read through the Wellcome Trust EPQ ethics guide and use three different colours to highlight words and phrases that relate to the three ethical frameworks. For example ‘benefits versus harms’ would suggest a utilitarian way of thinking, words such as ‘fair’ would suggest an approach based on virtue ethics, whereas ‘responsibility’ would indicate that rights and duties are being considered.

It is unlikely that you would deliberately set out to do something ethically wrong in your project, but sometimes it can happen if things have not been properly thought through. In the following case studies, both Mindi and Ethan had good research questions that were interesting, well-focused and with the potential to lead to excellent project outcomes. Both of them worked hard on their projects, but they each slipped up and did something that was ethically wrong.

Case study 1: Alcohol and behaviour

Ethan was interested in the ways alcohol and other substances affect mood and behaviour, and how this behaviour might also be influenced by factors such as peer pressure, social context and legislation. His EPQ research question was: ‘Is legislation the most effective way to control alcohol-related antisocial behaviour?’

Ethan used textbooks and websites to find out how alcohol is processed in the human body and how it affects the body and brain. He also researched relevant legislation in the UK and other countries, both now and in the past. He then thought it would be interesting to carry out some of his own observations and gather primary data. At a party where students from his college were drinking alcohol, he decided to record video clips on his phone and see how people’s behaviour changed during the evening. He did this without telling people at the party what he was doing, as he did not want them to alter their behaviour.

Case study 2: Genetic disease

Mindi’s EPQ research question was: ‘What is the best way to control genetic diseases?’ A lot of her work involved using textbooks and the internet to find out about a range of genetic diseases and the ways that embryos produced by IVF can be screened before being implanted in the mother. She also researched genetic counselling. Mindi learned that some genetic diseases were more common in certain ethnic groups, and decided to gather her own data on this.

Mindi produced a questionnaire that asked people about their ethnic origins, their family relationships, and whether there was any family history of genetic disease. She gave her questionnaire to students at her school and asked them to complete it in consultation with family members. Several students and their families found the questionnaire intrusive and upsetting. Some people became quite angry and complained to the school.

Activity 4: Why is that wrong?  

From the case studies of Mindi’s and Ethan’s projects, identify what each of them did that was ethically wrong. Refer to the Wellcome Trust EPQ ethics guide and decide whether, and in what way(s), they violated guidelines on research ethics.

Use the ethical frameworks to explain why Ethan’s and Mindi’s actions were wrong. Use each of the three frameworks in turn, then compare the reasoning that each leads you to.

Did you find all the frameworks equally easy to use? If you found one particularly easy, or difficult, was it the same one for both case studies?

You might be wondering which ethical framework you should use. The short answer is that there is no best one, though if you find yourself attracted to one particular way of thinking then you will probably find yourself using that framework to help you think about ethical issues. Also, you will probably find that some frameworks fit some situations better than others.

Rather than choosing a framework and hoping it will do your thinking for you, it is much better to develop the habit of questioning whether something is right or wrong. By doing so, you are learning to be ethical. If you have a gut feeling that an action is wrong (or right) you can then draw on one or more frameworks to help you to articulate the reasons why it is wrong (or right).

Further work

The topic of research ethics is itself an area that you could explore in an EPQ. For example, it could be interesting to explore how ideas about what is acceptable in research have changed over time, or how such ideas may differ between cultures.

You could search the internet to find out about famous experiments that would now be considered unethical, such as Jenner’s work with smallpox vaccination, Milgram’s experiments on obedience, or Mengele’s studies of twins. Or you could perhaps research the development of ethical codes such as the medical Hippocratic Oath.

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