Ethics of Qualitative Research: Part 3


In the previous post in this blog series, I began to discuss the three principles that emerged within the Belmont Report that serve as the foundations of ethical research practices. In Part 2, I discussed respect for persons, and in this blog, I will discuss beneficence.

So, what does the term “beneficence” mean? In its simplest form, it means to maintain the welfare of human research participants by doing no harm to them. This includes physical harm that may be associated with experimental research studies, as well as emotional and psychological harm. Qualitative researchers are most often concerned with the emotional and psychological harm that participants may experience during data collection, especially if the research focuses on a sensitive issue. When appropriate, qualitative researchers will provide participants with a list of resources, such as crisis hotlines or online support group information. In addition to providing these resources, qualitative researchers must disclose on the informed consent form the potential risks associated with participating in the research study.

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Because “do no harm” may be impossible to guarantee in some research studies, beneficence requires qualitative researchers to minimize the risk of harm to participants while maximizing the benefits of participating in the research study. While most qualitative research studies will include stressors that participants experience in their every-day life (fatigue is the most common), studies covering sensitive topics must include this information as a potential risk. For example, the researcher may disclose that the research study includes the risk of experiencing distress from sharing their experience or that some interview questions may potentially trigger distress by reminding participants of negative experiences. In these cases, qualitative researchers often note that they will stop the interview if a participant appears distressed and that they have measures in place to provide emotional or psychological support, (e.g., a list of resources or an on-site counselor). These procedures ensure that researchers do no harm to the wellbeing of participants.

Finally, qualitative researchers must let participants decide whether the benefits of participating in a research study outweigh the risks associated with participating in this research study (respect for persons). Even if there are no direct benefits to participants, qualitative researchers should identify the benefits their participation may have on society. This is especially true if a qualitative researcher seeks to inform policy with their findings, which may help the population under investigation. Examples of benefits to society may include furthering understanding of a topic or identifying important factors that influence behavior.