Beneficence & Nonmaleficence in Research Ethics

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has a master's degree in cancer biology and has taught high school and college biology.

We are going to quickly glance at the four principles of research ethics. Then we will focus on beneficence and nonmaleficence, and discuss why they are in place, with examples of each.

Biomedical Research

You are at home watching TV and a commercial comes on looking for individuals to participate in an upcoming research study. They explain what they are researching and emphasize that participants will be paid and receive all medications and procedures for free.

It sounds pretty good to you since it is addressing a condition that you have been struggling with for years. It will just cost you some time, right? And you might be cured in the process, so why not?

Well, your not so excited friend Trisha fills your head with all the things that can go wrong and is on her way to convincing you that researchers do not really care about the participants. What if they knowingly give you something dangerous? After doing some research, you decide to educate Trisha on just how wrong she is.

The Four Principles

The first thing you explain to Trisha is that there are four ethical principles for biomedical research.

  1. Autonomy - participants give informed consent to being a part of the research.
  2. Justice - researchers must be fair and treat all participants equally.
  3. Beneficence - research must be something that will be helpful to the majority of people.
  4. Nonmaleficence - research should not purposely cause harm.

You focus on the last two with Trisha because they address her concerns.


You and Trisha learn that the principle of beneficence are in place to ensure that researchers design studies that will generally benefit people. This can include research on new medications, surgeries, minor procedures, and nutritional supplements. The item being tested has to be intended for the good of the majority of people.

Trisha now learns that the other aspect of beneficence is that the research studies must be performed in a manner that it benefits those involved and minimizes any adverse effects.

For instance, researchers should use the minimum doses of medications in their studies that receive the desired results. This decreases the amount of drugs that participants are exposed to, especially considering that not all side effects may be understood at the time of the study.


It does not take much research for you and Trisha to realize that nonmaleficence goes hand-in-hand with beneficence. The principle of nonmaleficence is in place to make sure that researchers do not create studies that are designed to intentionally hurt or harm people.

This also has two aspects to it as well. First, the research should not do anything that causes harm such as giving toxic medications or performing harmful procedures.

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