Areas of Risks in Social Research, its potential harm, ethics, fraud and harassment

There are three areas of risks in social research. First, participants may be harmed as a result of their involvement. The potential harms include death or injury, stress, guilt, reduction in self-respect or self-esteem, unfair treatment, withheld benefits, and minor discomfort.

Second, professional relationships and the knowledge base may be damaged. These risks include falsification of data, plagiarism, abuse of confidentiality, and deliberate violation of regulations. 

Third, problems for the community or society may result.  Societal risks involve the effect of cultural values and beliefs on the knowledge produced and the impact of that knowledge on society. In the following sections, ethical issues are discussed for these three areas of risk.


Potential Harm to Participants

Potential Damage to Professional Relationships and the Knowledge Base

Damage to professional relationships occurs when standards of professional behavior are violated. Violations include falsification of data, plagiarism, abuse of confidentiality, and deliberate violation of regulations.  Knowledge development depends on accurate and careful data collection, thorough analyses, and unbiased reports.  Falsification of data ranges from total fabrication to selective reporting and can be directly harmful to individuals in clinical research

Research may be carried out with complete objectivity only to have the findings misreported. Findings may be “adjusted” to fit expectations. Several studies may be completed, with only the one supporting a preferred theory being published. McNemar (1960) noted that findings are sometimes discarded as “bad data” when they fail to support hypotheses. A widespread practice is the calculation of numerous statistical tests with only those achieving significance being reported. Wolins (1962) requested original data from 37 studies, and researchers in 21 of these studies replied that the data had been misplaced or destroyed. Of the seven published studies reanalyzed by Wolins, three revealed errors large enough to alter the conclusions drawn from the original data analysis.

Taking advantage of privileged information or violating confidentiality is a problem that is difficult to detect. Researchers openly discuss their ideas and share them through proposals. Proposals are reviewed by colleagues, university committees and administrators, and any number of outside researchers and practitioners serving on review panels. Articles prepared for professional journals are also subjected to a review process before publication. There are many opportunities for abuse of confidentiality.


Potential for Societal Harm The ethical balance of knowledge gained versus the potential for social harm from deception has only recently shifted in favor of greater restrictions in the use of deception. Individual researchers, professional associations, and the government have taken steps to minimize the risks encountered in research. Most efforts focus on protecting participants. The ratio of risks to benefits is assessed, informed consent is required, research designs and procedures are built to minimize the potential for harm to occur, participants are screened, diagnostic studies are conducted, procedures are designed to assess and deal with potential harms, and proposals are reviewed by others. Each precaution minimizes the risk, and, when taken together, the prospects are good for reducing harm to an occasional occurrence.

Fraud is generally defined in the law as an intentional misrepresentation of material existing fact made by one person to another with knowledge of its falsity and for the purpose of inducing the other person to act, and upon which the other person relies with resulting injury or damage. Fraud may also be made by an omission or purposeful failure to state material facts, which nondisclosure makes other statements misleading. The false statement or omission must be material, meaning that it was significant to the decision to be made. To constitute fraud the misrepresentation or omission must be made knowingly and intentionally, not as a result of mistake or accident, or in negligent disregard of its truth or falsity. Also, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant intended for the plaintiff to rely upon the misrepresentation and/or omission; that the plaintiff did in fact rely upon the misrepresentation and/or omission; and that the plaintiff suffered injury or damage as a result of the fraud. Damages may include punitive damages as a punishment or public example due to the malicious nature of the fraud.


harassment -the act of systematic and/or continued unwanted and annoying actions of one party or a group, including threats and demands. The purposes may vary, including racial prejudice, personal malice, an attempt to force someone to quit a job or grant sexual favors, apply illegal pressure to collect a bill, or merely gain sadistic pleasure from making someone fearful or anxious. Such activities may be the basis for a lawsuit if due to discrimination based on race or sex, a violation on the statutory limitations on collection agencies, involve revenge by an ex-spouse, or be shown to be a form of blackmail (“I’ll stop bothering you, if you’ll go to bed with me”). The victim may file a petition for a “stay away” (restraining) order, intended to prevent contact by the offensive party. A systematic pattern of harassment by an employee against another worker may subject the employer to a lawsuit for failure to protect the worker

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