Legal and Unethical Behavior in Research

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  • 0:07 Ethics and Laws
  • 1:40 Laws
  • 4:00 Legal but Unethical
  • 5:55 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Devin Kowalczyk

Devin has taught psychology and has a master's degree in clinical forensic psychology. He is working on his PhD.

In this lesson, explore some of the ways the ethical code and the legal system interact. Learn if it is possible to perform unethical research yet not violate the law.

Ethics and Laws

The American Psychological Association's Ethical Code is a set of rules and guidelines for psychologists with the intention of creating a minimum standard of behavior. For the most part, the ethical code is very similar to a moral code and common sense, and if you are someone who stops and thinks about things before you do them, you likely will not run afoul of the ethical code. For instance, there is a section on how to solve problems a person might have with another psychologist that states you should talk to the other professional before tattling to the people in charge, unless someone is in danger. There are also guidelines about requirements for conducting research, such as collecting consent from participants first and not subjecting them to harm.

Many ethical code guidelines state that the researcher should follow whatever the current federal, state and local laws are. If there is any discrepancy between the ethical code and the law, researchers should find an equitable way to handle the situation without compromising their ethics or violating the law. Laws were passed to protect participants of studies from abuse, although the laws are not as thorough as you might think. That being said, there are things a researcher can do that are legal but not ethical. We will look at how the laws are set up and then look at ways a person can bypass the laws but run face-first into the ethical code.


This is by no means an exhaustive look at all of the laws pertaining to researchers, but these are the primary ones in summary. These are not strictly in the ethical code. However, the ethical code might refer to them.

Several laws focus on the establishment of an Institutional Review Board, which is a group of researchers who review experiments before the experiment is started for possible ethical concerns and risk. The laws focus primarily on the creation and process of the review board. The laws require an institution to form a review board to examine the methodology of a researcher's study and approve or decline it. For them to decline, it must be based on concerns for ethical or legal reasons. The law does not discuss individuals who do not use the review board.

Animal experiments have specific laws pertaining to the handling, keeping and purchasing of animal participants, along with specified veterinarian care requirements. The laws also limit what is allowed by requiring an additional review board with a veterinarian to overlook every experiment that uses animals. These laws are extremely specific, and there are many layers of them at the federal, state and local levels.

There are safeguards and additional requirements to obtain informed consent from pregnant women and children. This is due to their role as a special population that is more vulnerable to risk due to carrying a child or because they cannot legally give consent.

The laws are also very specific on protection of personal information from being released or shared. These laws are actually extremely broad and sweeping, in that personal information of any kind cannot be shared by a person who collects it. These were not originally purposed to protect individuals involved in research, as they were meant to protect personal information in the doctor's and psychologist's office.

There are a great deal of specific legal issues when it comes to the areas listed above, but there are also immense gaps where it is possible to do things that are questionable without actually breaking the law. Let's look at some ways that a researcher can perform a study that is perfectly legal but unethical at the same time.

Legal But Unethical

The easiest way to do research that is unethical but legal is by circumventing your Institutional Review Board. The laws require that an institution have a review board, but there is no law that states a researcher must use the review board. An unethical researcher who is not breaking the law:

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