In the previous posts in this blog series, I discussed the first two tenets of the Belmont Report. In this post, I will discuss the third tenet: justice. The purpose of justice is to ensure a fair and equal distribution of the burdens, risks, and benefits associated with participating in research studies. On the surface this may seem intuitive; however, this means that researchers must justify the use of vulnerable populations in a research study because of the population’s involvement with the phenomenon under investigation (as opposed to their accessibility or susceptibility to participating in a research study). This is why, during Part 1 of this blog series, I noted how important it was to consider the target population of your research study; the majority of the concerns Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) have regarding qualitative research focus on ensuring justice for your potential participants.
Vulnerable populations need special protections and considerations in place to prevent coerced participation because of their socioeconomic, age, mental health, physical health, or racial status. This does not mean you are barred from conducting research with these populations, it merely means that you must justify their involvement beyond simple convenience. Instead, populations directly related to the research phenomenon under investigation should be recruited to participate in your research study. If it happens that a vulnerable population is directly related to the research phenomenon, then you should endeavor to include participants from that population. To establish the justice tenet of a research study, a qualitative researcher must justify the inclusion and exclusion of populations based on appropriateness to the research problem and phenomenon.
In total, all three tenets of the Belmont Report act as a foundation for IRBs to assess the ethical integrity of research studies. IRBs want to ensure that the decisions you make during the data collection process are made for the right reasons and that you are aware of the ethics associated with research.
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