Whatever your field, it is crucial to ensure that your research project meets all ethical, legal, and safety requirements. Depending on your field of study, you may need to take one or more of the following steps before starting your research project
- Discuss ethical implications of your project with a faculty advisor
- Obtain approval for your project from the Institutional Review Board
- Complete laboratory safety training
- Clarify the roles and expectations of contributors to the research project
- Consider other ethical or legal questions
As part of the Office of Research Support, the Human Subjects and Institutional Review Board oversees approval of qualifying research projects. Ethics training and approval are mandatory for projects involving human or animal subjects.
Research ethics involves the application of moral principles to academic research. When you decide to become a researcher, you take on an ethical responsibility to consider how your research will affect yourself, other members of your research team, your school and university, colleagues in your discipline, and local, national, and global communities.
Whether you are in the liberal arts, natural sciences, fine arts, or another field, you may face ethical questions in one or more phases of your research, including data collection, writing, or publishing. The basic principles of research ethics are similar for research in all disciplines, but accepted ethical standards sometimes differ from one discipline to the next.
As an undergraduate researcher, it is important to consider ethical implications of your research. During the planning stages of your project, you should talk to a faculty advisor about ethical and legal considerations relevant to your project and discipline.
Research Involving Human Subjects
All projects involving human subjects require approval from the Institutional Review Board (IRB) before the research can take place. The IRB considers applications from researchers across the university to ensure that all research projects involving human subjects are conducted in a safe, responsible, and legal manner. IRB approval is required for any project that involves performing physical procedures on a human being, interacting with human beings, collecting private or identifiable information, or otherwise involves studying living persons. As a student doing research involving human subjects, you have the responsibility to ensure that you are conducting your research in an appropriate and ethical manner. If you think your project may involve human subjects, you should contact the Office of Research Support to clarify whether you need IRB approval.
In addition to obtaining prior approval for human subjects research, all researchers (including undergraduates) who will be working with human subjects must first complete a training module on human subjects research
The IRB Application Guide section of the Office of Research Support website gives detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to apply for IRB review, the timeline for the review process, faculty mentor considerations, and additional information on working with human subjects. You will also need to be very familiar with the guidelines and procedures set forth by The University of Texas’ Office of Research Support and Institutional Review Board.
Research Involving Animals
Research projects that work with animals present different ethical problems than those that work with human subjects. One major reason for this is that animals cannot give their informed consent to participate in studies.
In 1959, two scientists, R.L. Burch and W.M.S. Russell, published a set of guidelines to help protect the interests of animals in scientific research. These guidelines are known as the 3 Rs.
- Replace: if possible, inanimate materials should be used in place of animals and invertebrates should be used in place of vertebrates
- Reduce: researchers should reduce the number of animals used in a research project as much as possible
- Refine: researchers should adapt their facilities and research methods to reduce any pain or distress experienced by animals
Much as all human subject research goes through the IRB, all research on vertebrate animals must pass through the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC), which oversees approval of all projects involving the use of animals. The IACUC considers applications from researchers across the university to ensure that all research projects involving animals are conducted in a responsible manner. The IACUC also periodically inspects facilities where animals are used for research. To learn more, visit the Office of Research Support’s page on animal research.
IACUC approval is required by federal law. If you proceed with a research project before getting your project approved or do not meet the guidelines that it sets for your project, your research may be terminated.
At UT, all research projects involving animals must be led by a faculty member. Thus, as a student researcher, you will not need to seek IACUC approval on your own. If, however, you are working under a faculty member who has an IACUC-approved research project, you may be expected to be familiar with the IACUC’s requirements.
All researchers (including undergraduates) must complete a training module on working with animals prior to engaging in animal-based research.
Other Safety and Ethics Training
All students participating in laboratory research using hazardous chemicals or biological materials are required to complete an online laboratory safety course, OH 102.
Laboratory safety training must be completed within 30 days of the start of any laboratory research; however, many project supervisors and faculty members will ask you to complete it before you begin working with them.
For more information, visit Environmental Health & Safety’s Laboratory Safety page.
If all research is ultimately about creating knowledge, then research integrity is about ensuring that this knowledge can be trusted. Trustworthy research maintains its integrity when researchers keep accurate records and data, and follow uniform procedures throughout the research process.
Scholarly misconduct is the intentional falsification, fabrication, distortion, or misrepresentation of data or another part of the research process. This offense can have severe repercussions within the university and the larger research community, and can also have legal ramifications.
Scholarly misconduct is especially harmful because it undermines the integrity of not only the offending work, but of the entire field of research. For example, take the case of a renowned biologist who falsified data about intelligence in monkeys: The researcher lost his job and was forced to retract a scholarly paper, which had been cited over 100 times in the literature. Even worse, this instance of scholarly misconduct cast doubt on the researcher’s other publications, especially those that cited the retracted paper — and some of these other papers had been cited thousands of times in the literature. Ultimately, even when just a small piece of the scientific literature lacks integrity, the science underlying a whole research area can become tainted.