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Ethics and Its Place in Educational Research

A Personal Perspective

The moral landscape of the nation is a minefield for the person who wishes to be upright. All of us expect ethical behavior from persons high and low. In the name of political expediency, however, the highest official in the land withdraws U.S. troops from Iraq to fulfill a campaign promise and would console those who had lost sons or husbands with the flimsy lie that the “war is over”. Government officials fail to marshal the massive scientific and technical resources of the nation for months while British Petroleum vainly looked for solutions to the Gulf oil well leak. Politicians then try to shift all the blame to the company. The White House encourages Hispanics to feel persecuted and excoriates Arizona for daring to clamp down on illegal immigration. Nor is “political correctness” limited to civic affairs.

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In the name of “constitutionally guaranteed” choice and free expression, Main Street is riotous with uncivil discourse about abortion, birth control, homosexual marriage, “recreational drugs”, and the long-term trauma children suffer from divorce. Deviant and fringe minorities flout themselves in public and loudly dare the courts, the ethical and law-aiding to knock the proverbial chip off their shoulders.

On a global scale, America donates food for the starving with one hand while offering the poison pill of “morning after” contraceptives and abortifacients with the other. We offer the olive branch of peace to Palestinians who murder Jewish and Christian civilians anywhere they wish while ignoring the fundamental right of Israelites to the Holy Land. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke bemoans the serious drag unemployment represents to the economy’s chances for recovery in the current recession while our businessmen cheer “globalization” for the opportunity to send jobs offshore to China, Japan and India. Still worse, businessmen today would rather boast healthier bottom lines from lay-off’s and refuse to resume hiring, thus adding to the continued misery of the nation.

On both personal and interpersonal levels, the social discourse that involves ethics permeates many facets of life. We neglect to eat sensibly and lapse into sedentary lifestyles only to wake up one day, too soon victims to degenerative and dread diseases. In the pursuit of breakthroughs for AIDS and other incurable diseases, we debate animal rights and wonder why harvesting fetuses is even a moral issue. Caring for our own elderly and terminally ill is so emotionally burdensome, we send Grandma off to a seniors home and take doctors to court for not letting us pull the plug on a family member “who would have wanted it that way”.

Having lost the moral anchor of religion, we are cast adrift with malformed consciences. The heritage of logical positivism has gotten perverted into “feels good” and “politically correct”. This is the moral equivalent of quicksand. But doing what is right is often inconvenient. Going by feelings alone is a slippery slope down which one finds drunk driving, alcoholism, recreational drugs, teenage pregnancy, abortion and child neglect. Marriage vows are as evanescent as morning fog and couples divorce without a thought to the permanent deprivation they inflict on their children. Just because it is legal does not make it right, as witness the slavery laws of 19th century America, apartheid in post-war South Africa, and legal abortion in contemporary times. All in all, we are reminded that ethics is not even about majority rule, community standards and consensus. We all have to stand for something.

Ethics and Educational Research in Contemporary Times

Taking a stand means two things in the formative atmosphere of college life and when doing academic research. Transferred to these contexts, ethical standards of right and wrong compel honesty, academic integrity and respecting the rights of others to privacy. Secondly, youthful students need to be open to developing and strengthening such ethical standards as they already possess. In college and throughout the course of graduate studies, my peers and I need to include in our academic quests the scrutiny of extant personal ethics and an openness to new ideas that help develop rational and solidly-grounded standards for later in life.

This, then, is what constitutes the standard of ethical behavior in academic research. Covered are all studies where one: a) interacts directly with human participants; b) exposes them to an intervention, whether in a laboratory or natural/home setting; or, c) all secondary research that examine human records. Mentors must be apprised about the totality of participant involvement, from screening, recruitment, extent of participation, disclosures about the nature of the study, and protection from inadvertent or deliberate harm throughout the conduct of, and subsequent to, the study. Further, protection of personal privacy is a fundamental concern. It must be clear to an impartial observer that participants are not being asked to provide more personal and socio-demographic information than is necessary for group analysis of the results. It may be inevitable that full names and contact information are provided the researcher in the process of qualifying, recruiting and screening participants. These cannot ever be disclosed to anyone or publicized, even in anonymized fashion, lest third parties gain clues to the real identities of participants (American Educational Research Association, 2005).

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One should not overlook either the role of the statistician in strengthening the ethical foundations of a study. Certainly, the statistician contributes much to recommending a reasonable sample size, selecting the right statistical analysis and seeing to the integrity of the data during processing. In this respect, the staff member plays a role in affirming for peer reviewers and the target audience of the study that the research project is valid, reliable and otherwise credible (McNamee, McNamee, & Bridges, 2002).

These ethical guidelines work for the benefit of study subjects. After all, something as apparently harmless as piloting a new measure of mental ability and aptitude can have unintended consequences when confidentiality and anonymity are not preserved in an educational setting. Were a colleague in the guidance service to participate in such a pilot study, revealing a finding of superior intellect even to him/her alone poses ethical questions. All too often, those assured of superior intelligence become complacent and dial back their efforts to earn top grades or create a perfect report.


American Educational Research Association (2005). Ethical standards. Web.

McNamee, M. J., McNamee, M. & Bridges, D. (2002).The ethics of educational research. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell.

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