Ethical Issues in Research and Proposal Writing


Proposal Writing, Swk 525


Robin Medalen & Sheila Landberg























Ethics is defined as a system of moral principles and perceptions about right versus wrong and the resulting philosophy of conduct that is practiced by an individual, group, profession, or culture (Barker, 1999).


Social Workers need to follow a code of ethics to make sure the client=s rights are respected.


Code of Ethics is an explicit statement of the values, principles, and rules of a profession, regulating the conduct of its members.


NASW Code of Ethics is the explication of the values, rules, and principles of ethical conduct that apply to all social workers who are members of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). The original Code of Ethics for social workers was implicit in the 1951 Standards for Professional Practice of the American Association of Social Workers (AASW). NASW developed a formal code in 1960 and has made subsequent revisions (Mattaini, Lowery & Meyer, 2002).                 


Roles of Values in Social Workers= Decision Making

1. Social services programs and other institutions in which social workers are employed have all been established to serve specific populations and to accomplish definite purposes.


2. Decisions made by individual practitioners about service objectives and priorities in different cases reflect value choices about which are most important.


3. Time and resources are chronically scarce in human services agencies, social workers must frequently make choices about the amount of time they will devote to different activities with different clients and which clients will be granted access to supplementary benefits such as summer camp opportunities for children, food vouchers, or psychiatric consultation.


4. Limitations in empirically based social work knowledge and a relative absence of the middle-range theories required to guide practice, social workers often resort to personal value preferences when deciding which theoretical approach or modality to employ in a specific case (Mattaini et al, 2002).


Shifts in Professional Ethical Concerns:

1. Late 19th Century, friendly visitors who volunteered in such agencies as the Charity Organization Society and the Association for Improving the Condition of the Poor focused their concerns primarily on the morality of their clients.


2. Settlement house movement development began the shift around the turn of the century.


-leading figures raised persistent questions about the morality of social and economic institutions that denied poor people the opportunity to care properly for themselves and their children.


-1920's social workers began to examine the morality of the profession itself and to discuss how best to define professional ethics.


-Reason for the relative inattention to professional ethics from the 1930s to 1950s was that Athe early years of the profession also happened to coincide with an era in which science and the scientific method were in the academic limelight@ During this period social work, like other professions, focused on issues that could be addressed empirically, not on ethical and value concerns.


-1970s professional education emphasized basic knowledge of the social work values that underscore professional identity and practice.


-Shift in orientation has been demonstrated by the introduction of many graduate and undergraduate courses on ethics and by the publication of multiple articles and texts on the topic of social work ethics.


Based on the principle of generic consistency, Frederic Reamer (1998) formulated six rules or guidelines that can be used to analyze and resolve ethical dilemmas in social work.

(Stated in order of priority, with the higher order principles taking precedence over the lower ones.)

1. Rules against basic harm to the necessary preconditions of action


2. An individual=s right to basic well-being


3. An individual=s right to self-determination takes precedence over his or her own right to basic well-being.


4. Obligation to obey laws, rules, and regulations to which one has voluntarily and freely consented ordinarily overrides one=s right to engage voluntarily and freely in a manner that conflicts with these laws, rules, and regulations.


5. Individuals= rights to well-being may override laws, rules, regulations, and arrangements of voluntary associations in cases of conflict.



6. The obligation to prevent basic harm such as starvation and to promote public

            goods such as housing, education, and public assistance overrides the         

right to complete control over one=s property.


Ethical Principles Screen

1. Principle of the protection of life

2. Principle of equality and inequality

3. Principle of autonomy and freedom

4. Principle of least harm

5. Principle of quality of life

6. Principle of privacy and confidentiality

7. Principle of truthfulness and full disclosure


Ethical Issues in Research and Evaluation

The violation of clients= rights and the abandonment of ethical principles concerning research and evaluation are no more tolerable than are the ethical violations and misconduct that occur in direct practice with individuals, families, couples, and groups or in indirect practice involving community organizing, social policy, agency administration, and social action (Reamer, 1998).




The trial of the Nazi doctors at Nuremberg in 1945 was the beginning of the tragic history in research ethics. Unethical medical experiments on Jews, gypsies, and political prisoners were performed by sixteen German physicians.  These legal proceedings documented and publicized in unprecedented fashion the harm that can be caused by unethical research. Unconsenting prisoners were exposed to inhumane experiments causing pain and suffering. In 1947, the Nuremberg Code and other international codes of ethics were written to protect research participants. Certain basic principles must be observed in order to satisfy moral, ethical and legal concepts:

1. Voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential


2.  Experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.


3.  Experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.


4. Experiment should be conducted to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.


5. No experiment should be conducted where there is a prior reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur.


6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.


7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.


8. Experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons.


9. Human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state during the course of the experiment.


10. The scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage during the course of the experiment (, 2003).


The Tuskegee Syphilis study has been one of the most commonly known ethical issues in research for thirty years. The study began in 1932 in Alabama and continued for 40 years. This case involves government physicians withholding vital information to save the lives of poor African American men. The men that were the subjects in this study were diagnosed with Syphilis and were told that they would receive free treatment for participating in this study. In fact, they were denied treatment such as Penicillin which would have allowed them to live much happier and longer lives. Instead, of giving treatment, the government was testing the disease and looking at the long-term effects. In this case, not only was informed consent ignored, but subjects were also misled about the purpose of the study. This study had the potential to not only cause emotional harm, but physical harm and even death. By the time the information about this study came to light in 1972, many of the subjects had already died (Reamer, 1998).

Laud Humphrey=s ATearoom sex@ experiment in the 1960s has also been recognized as a study that involves many ethical issues involved. Humphrey intended to research stereotypes about homosexual men that participate in sexual acts in public restrooms. When doing his research, Humphrey was present in the public restroom pretending to be the look out since many men were being arrested for taking part in such behavior. Later, Humphrey disclosed his identity and persuaded the men to tell him more about their personal lives. In some cases, Humphrey followed these men to their homes and noted their license plate numbers. After a year, he then appeared at the houses of the men that he met in the restrooms taking part in ATearoom sex.@ Humphrey stated that he was a health service interviewer and questioned the men about their marital status, job, and other personal information. He found that, despite the stereotype, most of these men were not gay but in fact married, well educated, and successful members of the community (, 2003).

Although Laud Humphrey was able to disprove some serious stereotypes about homosexual males, he invaded the privacy of many people. As with the experiments previously discussed, there was no informed consent and Humphrey also mislead and deceived the subjects throughout the entire experiment.

In the 1960s, Stanley Milgram conducted his study of obedience. His idea of this study came from the events that took place during the Holocaust. Milgram was curious to find out how far people would go in punishing others when told to do so by someone who is in a position of authority. Those participating in this study were told that the Aresearch concerned the effect of punishment on learning, specifically, what effect different people have on each other as teacher and learner@ (Korn, 1997). The real purpose of the study, however, was to examine obedience. Milgram recruited participants to play the part of the Ateacher@ and give an electric shock to the participant known as the Alearner@ when the Alearner@ gave a wrong answer to a question. The Alearner,@ however, was an actor who was pretending to get a shock when a wrong answer was given. Every time a wrong answer was given, the voltage of the shock increased. Although some Ateachers@ questioned the experiment, they continued with the shocks until very severe even though it was apparent that they did not want to continue with this punishment. The smallest shock given was 15 volts but many Ateachers@ went the entire length and reached 450 volts with their Alearners@ ( Although this study affirmed that people listen to authority even when not completely comfortable with it, it had great implications as well. Much stressed was caused on those participants known as Ateachers,@ even though they may not have been wanting to hurt the other participant they did because they were asked to. This brings up the ethical issue of cost to subjects. How far can researchers go in order to conduct their study?                                     

From 1963 to 1966, the Willowbrook study investigated the natural history of an untreated disease, infectious hepatitis. A group of children diagnosed with mental retardation, who lived at the Willowbrook State Hospital in Staten Island, New York, were deliberately infected with hepatitis. One group of subjects was fed extracts of stools from infected individuals and a second group of subjects received injections of more purified virus preparations. The purpose of the study was to examine the history of the disease when left untreated and later to assess the effects of gamma globulin as a therapeutic intervention. The antibody substances are produced as a protective reaction of the body=s immune system to the invasion of disease producing organisms. Variety of concerns were generated, the major one being deliberate infection of the children, and the attempts to convince their parents to enroll them in the study in exchange for admission to the hospital (Reamer, 1998).

In 1971, Stanford University students participated in a study on prison life. The students were paid a small amount of money to take part in this study. The researchers divided the students into two groups, one group was prisoners and the other prison guards. The experiment intended on studying the Apower of roles, rules, symbols, group identity and situational validation of behavior...@ (, 1997). The experiment took place in the basement of one of the buildings at the school. The researcher ended the study a week early because of the situations taking place within the experiment. The prison guards became increasingly aggressive and coercive with the prisoners. Some claimed that they were only playing their part but it was later found that acts of punishment were put on the prisoners when no researchers were around. Therefore, the guards did not think anyone would know of this behavior. In spite of  the researcher=s claims that this experiment was ethical in most ways, he did admit that it was unethical Abecause people suffered and others were allowed to inflict pain and humiliation on their fellows over an extended period of time@ (, 1997).

Although each of these studies provided interesting information, is that information worth the risks of doing harm to those involved? The Institutional Review Board was not around when these studies took place but has been established in part because of situations such as these. There was no protection for people participating in studies during the time these famous studies occurred but we now have the IRB to assure the least amount of harm possible. According to Reamer (1998), all organizations and agencies are required to have an Institutional Review Board to review ethical aspects of research proposals involving human subjects if they wish to receive federal funds. The purpose of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) is to increase the probability that research will be conducted ethically.


Information regarding the University of North Dakota=s Institutional Review Board can be found online at:


The role of the IRB is to protect the rights and welfare of individual research subjects.


This goal is accomplished by having the IRB assure that the following requirements are satisfied:

1. Risks to subjects are minimized


2. Risks to subjects are reasonable in relation to anticipated benefits


3. Selection of subjects is equitable


4. Informed consent is sought from each subject or his/her legally authorized representative


5. Informed consent is appropriately documented


6. When appropriate, the research plan makes provisions for monitoring data collection


7. Privacy and confidentiality of research subjects are appropriately protected, and


8. When some or all of the subjects are likely to be vulnerable to coercion or undue influence, additional safeguards have been included.


The IRB has to approve these requirements are followed before approval of a research study and must be reviewed on, at the least, an annual basis.




















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