Conducting Educational Research
Ethical Considerations in Research

Educational researchers, as well as researchers from all other domains, must consider the ethical principles of right and wrong in relation to their research study. The American Psychological Association (APA), as well as other research bodies, have developed ethical standards in conducting research. APA's code of ethics can be read here.

There are three areas that researchers must consider in terms of ethics:

Data Collection and Analysis

Each researcher has a fundamental responsibility to ensure that their data are reliable and trustworthy. Educational research studies can and should have a significant impact on educational practices, so it is of paramount importance that data collection and analysis be conducted in a fashion that is both honest and proficient. Intellectual integrity is the foundational principle upon which science stands. To this end, researchers must have an attitude that puts pursuit of knowledge above personal gain and be willing to admit error. Furthermore, researchers must be completely honest and forthright in their reporting and analysis of data. Below are some unethical practices as related to data collection and analysis.

Data Fabrication
Data fabrication simply means making up data. Making up data is completely unethical. I have supervised students who obviously completed every questionnaire themselves. Not only is this lazy, but this is absolutely, fundamentally wrong in every possible sense. Nothing justifies data fabrication, ever, in any circumstance. If left unchecked, this student would have drawn conclusions and made recommendations in their final report that were unfounded.

Research projects are a permanent record that can influence subsequent research studies and educational practice. Let's say this student made up data that arrived at the conclusion that students learn best when they drink a Maltina before studying. Any subsequent student who reads this work will presume this conclusion is correct, and may develop a research study based off of it. Perhaps another student may develop a research study to determine whether the Maltina should be taken immediately before studying or an hour before studying. This second research study is sure to fail, because it really isn't known whether Maltina is an effective study drink! Furthermore, after reading the study, a principal might give a large contract ordering one Maltina per student per day for the four weeks before the WAEC, hoping to improve scores. While Maltina Corporation would surely love the contract, this money would be better spent elsewhere because it is not truly known whether drinking Maltina is an effective study method.

Although this story is a bit foolish, data fabrication can have serious consequences on education. Perhaps a researcher "finds" that a certain counseling program is effective in improving student behavior at school. Principals and guidance counselors should then spend considerable effort implementing this program in their schools to improve their students' behavior. However, if the researcher made up the data, then this finding is not true and principals and guidance counselors will waste much effort and resources that could otherwise be dedicated to other, more effective methods of improving student behavior.

While fabricating entire questionnaire responses is clearly wrong, there are more subtle ways that data can be fabricated that are not quite so blatantly unethical. Sometimes participants skip items on a questionnaire, and a researcher might be tempted to pick an answer for them. This is also unethical as it essentially makes up a response for the participant. There are scientifically accepted practices for handling missing data, as well be described in the Coding Data page. Researchers must be very careful not to make up data at any point in the research process.

Data Falsification
It is also unethical to manipulate data in such a way that the results do not accurately represent actual findings. For example, I have seen some students report that 200 students completed the questionnaire when only 197 questionnaires were returned. Misrepresenting the number of completed questionnaires is data falsification and is also unethical. Here, the researcher should report that 200 questionnaires were distributed, but only 197 were returned. The accepted rate for questionnaire response rate is about 60%, so this is still a very good response rate! You must accurately state how many questionnaires were completed.

Other times, a researcher might be tempted to exclude participants whose reports are contrary to the hoped-for conclusion. For example, a researcher might find that one participant in the Maltina-drinking group failed the exam miserably, so he decided to throw out their data. This is data falsification and is unethical.

There are times when it is ethical for a researcher to discard data. Perhaps a participant in the Maltina-drinking group never drank more than a sip or two of the Maltina. Since the participant did not complete the treatment (i.e., drink the Maltina), it would be perfectly acceptable to remove her from the analysis. However, the researcher must report how many people were excluded from the analysis, and for what reasons.

Using inappropriate statistics is also the same as data falsification. Perhaps the researcher knows that if they run a t-test, then the results will not be significant. Instead, she simply reports the mean scores of the Maltina drinking and non-Maltina drinking groups and concludes that drinking the Maltina results in better academic performance. This is falsifying the conclusions of the study, and is unethical.

Plagiarism means using another person's ideas, results, or words without proper credit. Plagiarism is a serious problem in Nigeria, and I believe that it is largely a problem of misunderstanding what constitutes acceptable writing practices. "The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property and is protected by copyright laws" ( This means that in academic work, every sentence in your paper - except those in quotation marks - is expected to be your original words. Copying words from another source without quoting, as well as copying ideas from another source without citing is ILLEGAL, UNETHICAL, and UNACCEPTABLE.

According to, the following behaviors are considered plagiarism:

  • Turning in someone else's work as your own. Submitting somebody else's paper for your assignment is clearly wrong. There are no situations that can justify this blatant form of plagiarism.
  • Copying words or ideas from another work without giving credit. Any idea that does not come directly from your mind must be cited.
    • Plagiarism: Piaget proposed four stages of cognitive development. This statement is plagiarized because it is not my original idea. I read this statement from Woolfolk's (2007) book.
    • Correct: Piaget identified four stages of cognitive development (Woolfolk, 2007).
    For more information on citing works, click APA Citation.
  • Giving incorrect information about the source of a quotation. If you did not read the original work, then reference the original work "as cited in" and include the paper you read in the references section.
    • Plagiarism: Smith believed that a child's first encounter with the environment through their motor activities is the prerequisite for later learning (Smith, 1964). This is plagiarism because I did not read Smith's original book. Instead, I found this source in Kirk's (1972) book. Therefore, this statement must be cited as Smith, 1964 as cited in Kirk, 1972.
    • Correct: Smith believed that a child's first encounter with the environment through their motor activities is the prerequisite for later learning (Smith, 1964, as cited in Kirk, 1972). Kirk's book, not Smith, should be put in the References section.
  • Failing to put a direct quote in quotation marks. All words in a paper must be your own. Any direct quotes must be put in quotation marks!
    • Plagiarism: Education in any society tends to reflect the political philosophy of that society (Kirk, 1972). This is plagiarism because I copied the sentence word-for-word from Kirk's book.
    • Correct: "Education in any society tends to reflect the political philosophy of that society" (Kirk, 1972, p. 3). See APA Quotations to read more about how to quote material.
  • Changing the words but copying the sentence structure of another work without giving credit.
    • Plagiarism: Education in all societies often reflects the philosophy of the society (Kirk, 1972). This is plagiarized off of this sentence from a book: "Education in any society tends to reflect the political philosophy of that society." Notice how only about three words were changed from the original. This is plagiarism.
    • Correct: The political philosophy of a society influences educational practices (Kirk, 1972). To avoid this, do not take notes word-for word when reading a paper. Instead, summarize the key points in your notes.
  • Copying so many words or ideas from another work that it makes the majority of your paper, regardless of whether you give credit or not. To avoid this, first write an outline of your paper before finding sources. For example, before writing a paper that examined teachers' knowledge of literacy development, I made the following outline:
    • Present dire statistics of poor literacy rates in Nigeria
    • Point out that most research about improving literacy focuses on adult literacy. Very little work looks at early literacy because assumed that children learn to read in primary school
    • Research [e.g., Shuman (1987)] found that teachers' knowledge of discipline - literacy - influences teaching practices
    • Researchers have identified best practices in teaching early literacy, including the importance of frequent reading and positive outcomes of frequent reading
    • Nigerian education students laugh when I say to read every day. Purpose of study is to find out why - what is their knowledge of literacy development
    After writing this outline, it was impossible for me to plagiarize another paper because I developed the outline of my work before consulting a single source.

There are two primary strategies to avoid plagiarism. (For more information on this topic, click on the Purdue Online Writing Laboratory.)

Paraphrase. Paraphrasing consists of rephrasing a passage from a source into your own words. Paraphrases are usually shorter by slightly condensing the information (OWL, 2010).

That previous paragraph was paraphrased from the following direct quotation from OWL (2010): "Paraphrasing involves putting a passage from source material into your own words. A paraphrase must also be attributed to the original source. Paraphrased material is usually shorter than the original passage, taking a somewhat broader segment of the source and condensing it slightly."

Notice how my own paragraph was written in entirely different words and was shorter than the original quotation. Notice also how I cited OWL at the end of the paragraph to show that the idea was obtained from the OWL website - I did not make up the definition of paraphrasing!

Summarize. Writing only the main ideas in your own words. Summaries are considerably shorter with only a broad overview of the source (OWL, 2010).

Again, that paragraph was paraphrased from the following quotation from OWL: "Summarizing involves putting the main idea(s) into your own words, including only the main point(s). Once again, it is necessary to attribute summarized ideas to the original source. Summaries are significantly shorter than the original and take a broad overview of the source material."

In other words, summarizing means that the overall conclusion of an article is stated. For example, here is an opening statement in Korb (2010): "Around 70% of university students in Nigeria admit to engaging in academic malpractices (Korb, in press)." Believe me, the article (Korb, in press) has considerably more writing than just that one statement. However, the entire article can be summarized by that one overarching conclusion.

Finally, simple carelessness is unethical in scientific research. This may be the result of sloppy errors in data collection, careless when entering data into the computer, or maybe accidentally typing the wrong number when reporting the statistics in the report. A careless error is unethical regardless of whether it was done due to of lack of attention, ignorance, or on purpose. To conduct research with the highest standards of ethics, a researcher must be continually vigilant to prevent errors, must ask questions of experts when they do not understand something, and must make a continual effort to keep their research free from dishonest practices.

Treatment of Participants

Because educational research is conducted on human beings, educational researchers must be aware of how their research may impact the fundamental human rights of the participants in the study. The following are accepted practices that must be met when conducting research with human participants.

Voluntary Participation
Individuals must not be forced to participate in a research study. In Nazi Germany, Jews and other prisoners of concentration camps were forced to participate in harmful research studies. This clearly violated these individuals' human rights. Along the same lines, forcing a child to complete a counseling treatment, or even complete a questionnaire, violates their right of choice. Therefore, participants must be allowed to choose whether to participate in the study or not. Some individuals will indeed choose not to participate, so a researcher must honor that decision.

Participants must be aware that they are free to limit their participation in the research study, or withdraw their participation altogether at any time. If there is an item on a questionnaire that the participant does not want to answer because it makes them feel uncomfortable, they are free to skip it. If there is an aspect of the treatment that they do not feel comfortable with, they are free to sit out. Furthermore, if the research study is making them uncomfortable, they are free to quit the study. Researchers may make a gentle attempt to persuade them to continue their participation by convincing them of the importance of the study, but they must honor the participant's wishes to withdraw if they persist. The researcher needs to make a note that the participant withdrew and the reason, if possible, to report in the Sample section of the study.

Participants also have the fundamental right of privacy. This means that participants get to decide when, where, to whom, and to what extent their attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors will be shared. Unless a participant explicitly agrees in writing that their name and responses can be publicly shared, then a researcher has an ethical responsibility to protect the privacy of their participants. In social science research, privacy typically takes the form of either anonymity or confidentiality.

Anonymity. Anonymity means that a participant's name is never linked to their responses. This is the strictest form of privacy, but it can only be achieved in certain types of studies. Anonymity occurs in research studies where a participant can complete a questionnaire without writing their name on the questionnaire. In this instance, not even the researcher knows whose attitudes, beliefs, or behaviors are indicated on the questionnaire as soon as it has been submitted. In situation such as these, anonymity is the best way to protect a participant's privacy.

However, not all studies can achieve anonymity. In pre-post test designs, the researcher must be able to link a participant's pre-test to their post-test. In correlational designs, a researcher might have to link multiple sources of information, perhaps link a participant's questionnaire to their school test scores. Studies that use face-to-face interviews also cannot provide anonymity. In these cases, the researcher must strive for protecting the confidentiality of the participant.

Confidentiality. Confidentiality means that participants' responses will only be seen by researchers who are directly involved in the study. For interviews, the researcher will change the name of the participant to a different name, called a pseudonym. If audio-recording of the interview is used (and participants must give explicit permission for an interview to be audio-recorded), then the tapes are secured in a location where nobody can access them besides relevant researchers. In studies where multiple sources of information need to be linked, the researcher will immediately change the name to a code number as soon as the appropriate linking has been accomplished. Researchers also must also never share what they learn about a specific person to people outside of the study.

In specific types of research, public figures may be interviewed and it may be impossible to protect their confidentiality. For example, a research study might be examining the teaching philosophy of top-level individuals in the Ministry of Education. It would be impossible to protect the privacy of the Minister of Education. In these cases, the researcher must get explicit permission in writing by the participant to be able to disclose information that is shared in the course of research.

Informed Consent
Participants must also be fully informed about procedures and potential risks of the research and must give their informed consent to participate. Not only must people participate in the study voluntarily, but they also must understand enough of the purposes of the study to make an informed decision about whether they would like to participate. To make an informed consent (agreement), participants should be informed of four primary parts of the research:

  • Purpose of the research. Participants should understand why the research is being conducted. However, researchers can, and most likely should, keep the entire purpose of the study vague. If a researcher informs participants that they are conducting a study to examine how teacher dedication to their job is related to their work attendance, then teachers might be slightly biased toward their responses; they will not want to appear undedicated to their job. Instead, the researcher might inform participants that they are examining teachers' beliefs about the teaching profession. This is accurately describing the purpose of the questionnaire that the teacher is completing, but it does not bias teachers in their responses. To summarize, researchers need to inform participants of the general purpose of the study in a fashion that will not bias responses.
  • Requirements of participation. Participants also need to be aware of what their participation in the study requires. Will they complete a questionnaire? Have an interview? Complete an achievement test? Go through counseling? How long will the counseling last, and what will it require? Researchers need to give a brief description of what participants will do, how long it will take, and if any other follow-ups will be required.
  • Who is sponsoring the research. In most cases, students and academics will be completing the research as part of an academic project. Sometimes this research is being sponsored by a granting agency: Carnegie, UNICEF, WHO, etc. Participants have a right to know what agency is sponsoring the research. Imagine that the Maltina Corporation was sponsoring the research study to examine the effects of Maltina on academic achievement. This is a potential conflict of interest that might bias the results of the study. Before agreeing to participate, participants need to be informed of whoever is sponsoring the research: the university or other institution that the research is being conducted through as well as any agency that might be funding the research.
  • Participation is voluntary. Participants need to be aware that they do not have to be part of the research study and that they may skip any part of the study that they do not feel comfortable with.

There are two ways that informed consent can be solicited.

Questionnaire Only Studies. If a research study only requires participants to complete a questionnaire and nothing else, scientists have agreed that informed consent consists of the act of completing the questionnaire. As will be explained in Developing a Questionnaire, each questionnaire must begin with an introductory paragraph. That introductory paragraph should include all of the informed consent information as stated above, as well as statements assuring anonymity or confidentiality. An example introductory paragraph is presented below:

Notice how the questionnaire includes the purpose of the research, what participation entails, who is sponsoring the research, that participation is voluntary, and a statement of anonymity.

More than Questionnaire Studies. However, few research studies will rely on questionnaires only, particularly for researchers who are pursing advanced degrees. In these cases, participants should sign an informed consent document that outlines what the participant must do in the study in greater detail. For an example informed consent document, click here.

As one of my professors in my doctoral program humorously stated, informed consent documents are not a creative writing exercise. To develop your own informed consent document, simply take the sample and substitute the correct information for your study. Notice how the first section describes the purpose of the study, who is sponsoring the research, why the person was selected to participate in the study, and about how many people will participate. The second section details exactly what the participant will be doing in the study. Make this section as detailed as possible so participants will know what to expect in the study, but without providing information that may bias responses. The third sections details the risks of the study. This section is typically most relevant for medical research studies where participants may experience negative side-effects of new medical procedures. However, educational research may have risks for participants, perhaps if they get frustrated by a new teaching method. The fourth section describes how the participant's confidentiality will be protected.

On the second page, there are two optional portions that can be deleted based on the purpose of your study. The first is a place for participants to tick to use an audio-recorder to record the interview. Participants must tick this place if you do use a recording devise. The second is a place for participants to tick if they will allow their name to be used in the research. However, not all studies will need these options so remove these two lines if they are unnecessary.

Before participants begin a study, the researcher needs to review this information with participants and receive their informed consent.

Responsibility to Society

Society at large has the right to research that is conducted as neutrally as possible. Sometimes researchers have a conflict of interest in the research they are conducting. Perhaps they have spent hours upon hours developing a counseling program and want to provide evidence that the counseling program is effective and their work has not been in vain. Maybe a researcher has developed a new textbook and will financially benefit if the textbook is found to greatly improve learning outcomes. These biases can have a significant impact on how a research study is designed, the participants selected, the instruments used, how data is analyzed, and the final conclusions that are drawn. However, society has a right for research to be as "value-free" as possible and not hampered by the biases of researchers. As a researcher, you need to be aware of the biases you may have - perhaps biases as explicit as financial gain, but also biases as implicit as simply wanting to provide evidence that your way of thinking is correct. Before embarking on a research study, spend time thinking about what biases you may have, and make those biases explicit in your report.

Also, researchers need to be aware of how their research may be used within society, for good or for ill. Returning to the Maltina study, if it is found that Maltina does improve academic achievement, then it is possible that teachers will use this as an excuse to only provide Maltina to their students and quit providing instruction in the classroom. Researchers need to consider any negative side-effects of their study and humbly reframe their topic if the research may be used for negative purposes within society. Indeed, I believe that the best research studies are designed to find positive solutions to practical problems within society.

Finally, researchers need to provide direction on how their research findings can be used to improve society. Imagine that a researcher finds a new way of teaching addition to young children that results in much better academic performance. This researcher now has a responsibility to find ways of promoting this new teaching strategy. Research is not intended to be conducted and then collect dust as a project sits through harmattan after harmattan on a bookshelf. Research should be used to improve society whenever and where possible. Share positive findings with key stakeholders to try to improve society.


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Copyright 2012, Katrina A. Korb, All Rights Reserved