Chapter 3: Research Ethics

In 1998 a medical journal called The Lancet published an article of interest to many psychologists. The researchers claimed to have shown a statistical relationship between receiving the combined measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine and the development of autism—suggesting furthermore that the vaccine might even cause autism. One result of this report was that many parents decided not to have their children vaccinated (becoming a cultural phenomenon known as “anti-vaxxers”), which of course put them at higher risk for measles, mumps, and rubella. However, follow-up studies by other researchers consistently failed to find a statistical relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism—and it is generally accepted now that there is no relationship. In addition, several more serious problems with the original research were uncovered. Among them were that the lead researcher stood to gain financially from his conclusions because he had patented a competing measles vaccine. He had also used biased methods to select and test his research participants and had used unapproved and medically unnecessary procedures on them. In 2010 The Lancet retracted the article, and the lead researcher’s right to practice medicine was revoked (Burns, 2010)[1].

In 2011 Diederik Stapel, a prominent and well-regarded social psychologist at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, was found to have perpetrated an audacious academic crime – fabricating data[2]. Following a multi-university investigation, Stapel confessed to having made-up the data for at least 55 studies that he published in scientific journals since 2004. This revelation came as a shock to researchers, including some of his colleagues who had spent time and valuable resources designing and conducting studies that built on some of Stapel’s fraudulently published findings. Even more tragically, Stapel revealed that he had perpetrated the same fraud in 10 doctoral dissertations he oversaw, actions that caused harm to the academic careers of his former students. At a more general level, however, Stapel’s actions inflicted a serious blow to the honour code that scientists abide by. Science is, after all, a shared process of discovery that requires researchers to be honest about their work and findings – whether or not their research hypotheses are supported by the data they collect. Breaching this trust as seriously as Stapel did undermines the entire foundation of this process. Needless to say, Stapel was suspended from his position at Tilburg University. In addition, the American Psychological Association retracted a Career Trajectory Award it had presented to Stapel in 2009, and the Dutch government launched an investigation into his misuse of research funding. Stapel has since returned the doctorate he received from the University of Amsterdam, noting that his “behaviour of the past years are inconsistent with the duties associated with the doctorate.” Stapel also apologized to his colleagues, saying, “I have failed as a scientist and researcher. I feel ashamed for it and have great regret.”[3]

In political psychology, a contentious case of fraudulent data has resulted in a retracted paper from the prestigious journal, Science, as well as a rescinded job offer from Princeton University.  Michael LaCour, a graduate student in political science published a surprising result with Donald Green, an established professor at Columbia University: interacting with a gay canvasser can change a voter’s opinion of gay equality.  The myriad of LaCour’s fabricated information includes grants, awards, and ethical approval.  Although Green requested the retraction of the Science article without consulting his co-author, LaCour stands by the data[4].

In this chapter we explore the ethics of scientific research in psychology. We begin with a general framework for thinking about the ethics of scientific research in psychology. Then we look at some specific ethical codes for biomedical and behavioural researchers—focusing on the Ethics Code of the American Psychological Association and the Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS 2). Finally, we consider some practical tips for conducting ethical research in psychology.


  1. Burns, J. F. (2010, May 24). British medical council bars doctor who linked vaccine to autism. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/health/policy/25autism.html?ref=andrew_wakefield
  2. Jump, P. (2011, November 28). A star’s collapse. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2011/11/28/scholars-analyze-case-massive-research-fraud
  3. Carey, B. (2011, November 2). Fraud case seen as a red flag for psychology research. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/03/health/research/noted-dutch-psychologist-stapel-accused-of-research-fraud.html
  4. Singal, J. (2015, May 29). The Case of the Amazing Gay-Marriage Data: How a Graduate Student Reluctantly Uncovered a Huge Scientific Fraud. New York Magazine. Retrieved from http://nymag.com/scienceofus/2015/05/how-a-grad-student-uncovered-a-huge-fraud.html