Researchers, philosophers and policymakers have developed ethical codes governing research on human subjects. Many of these policies were developed in response to notorious violations of subjects’ rights, such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, and have grown out of concern to protect both the researchers and vulnerable populations in particular. Most professional associations nowadays have clear guidelines on how to conduct safe and ethical research, including definitions of who might be considered a vulnerable person and why. For the most part, vulnerable groups are those people who are less able to protect their own interests. This might be someone with ill health, someone who is too young to legally consent to participate or too old to fully understand the consequences of participation, a person of minority status (e.g. a foreign worker or a refugee), or even a person in a hierarchical structure who feels obliged to do something they may not normally want to do.
While the consequences for ethical violations are extremely serious, most of the principles for guarding against such violations are fairly straightforward, such as obtaining participants’ informed consent and minimising potential physical or emotional harm.
In order to protect your research participants and yourself, it is vital that you:
Step 1: Educate yourself about the relevant ethical principles and guidelines,
Step 2: Design your research in accordance with these principles and guidelines,
Step 3: Obtain the necessary approval before interacting with your participants, and
Step 4: Continuously put good ethical principles into practice. These steps, which are detailed below, should be carried out in conjunction with your faculty supervisor.
At Yale-NUS, all student research (whether it is capstone-related or an independent project or a classroom assignment) must be carried out under the supervision of a faculty advisor who is responsible for ensuring that the student researcher carries out their research in a safe and ethical manner.
Capstone Research: In the case of students’ capstone research, the Undergraduate Research Ethics Committee (UREC) is a faculty committee with representatives from all three divisions that must approve all capstone projects that involve human subjects research. Students are not allowed to commence their human subjects research until they have received approval first from their capstone supervisor and then UREC. If you have questions about capstone research ethics, you should first consult your capstone supervisor. If you still have questions, you can contact UREC at email@example.com.
Independent Student Research Projects: Students are required to have a faculty advisor for any independent research project they undertake. If the project entails human subjects research, the faculty advisor and the student must submit an application to the NUS Institutional Review Board (IRB) to approve the research project design. UREC does not review students’ independent research projects.
Classroom Research Assignments: Interviews, surveys, experiments, or participant-observations conducted for a classroom assignment represent a learning exercise and do not meet the official definition of research. As such, these activities do not require prior clearance from UREC or NUS IRB. The faculty member teaching the class is responsible for ensuring the ethical design of all research assignments in the course, such as respecting the privacy of participants and seeking informed consent.