Dissertation Writing: The Importance of Maintaining Ethical Standards

By. Dr. Ron Jones

A variety of ethical issues may develop during the phases of writing a dissertation, spanning from the identification of the research problem to disseminating the findings. Doctoral research involving human subjects presents a researcher with potential ethical dilemmas, especially when the researcher values the outcome of the study more than the protection of the research participants. The research problem should be worthy of doctoral research, providing benefits beyond satisfying the researcher’s curiosity or personal agenda. Studying the problem should not create biases or negatively affect participants in the study. Researching the problem should hold benefits for the participants. The purpose of the research should be clearly delineated to the participants and not contain the elements of deception to induce participation. The intent of the study should be unambiguous, allowing potential participants to make an informed decision about the personal benefits and risks of participation. The temptation to disguise the intended purpose of the study, even slightly, must be overcome to conduct the research in an ethical manner.

Ethical considerations abound within the data collection process. A researcher should design an informed consent form for the purpose of informing participants of the benefits, purpose, risks, and other identification aspects of the survey. Participants should not be put at undue risk for economic, emotional, legal, physical, or professional injury. Health and Human Services (HHS) regulations cover ethical considerations of research involving human subjects. Although the regulations hold protections for every human subject, HHS grants additional protections to pregnant women, human fetuses, newborns, children, and prisoners. Doctoral students increase the potential to receive Institutional Review Board approval by avoiding research involving classes that receive additional HHS protections.

Inaccurate or biased data interpretation alters the outcome and creates a violation of ethics. A researcher must guard against the fraudulent practice of modifying, falsifying, or concealing findings to change the result of the study to align with predetermined research goals, or for any other reason. An essential ethical consideration is the anonymity, or at a minimum confidentiality, of the participants. Coding removes personal identifiers, allowing the participants to maintain their right to privacy. Researchers must guard against writing with biased language, such as placing insensitive labels upon people groups or singling out people due to age, ethnicity, or gender. Taking authorship of the writings of others is unethical. Writing a dissertation will require numerous supporting journal articles from peer-reviewed authors. Learning the process of properly citing other authors removes the potential to commit plagiarism. The findings and the details of the research should be disseminated in such a way that promotes accountability, authenticity, and accuracy.  Finally, safety storing data for a specified period (typically 5 years) prevents misuse or exposure of the participants’ personal or professional information.

Doctoral research holds ethical dilemmas for researchers. The ethical treatment of participants includes protection and privacy. The researcher should commit to research of integrity and high ethics, allowing the data to dictate the findings as opposed to personal opinions or biases. As with many aspects of dissertation writing, maintain ethical standards oftentimes requires outside assistance to ensure compliance. Prior to allowing an ethical violation from destroying the research, seek the advice of a competent doctoral coach that recognizes and understands the ethical considerations associated with the study.