Consider the Risk-Benefit Ratio of the Research

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Being realistic about the risks and benefits involved in one’s study, without over- or underestimating either, is integral to ensuring the ethical conduct of research.​1​

When designing a study, researchers should consider and reflect on the novelty and necessity of the research topic to their field, as well as explicitly outline all potential risks and benefits of the study.​1,2​ Taking these steps before starting a project can help to maximize both the scholarly and broader impacts of the research while minimizing potential consequences and negative outcomes.

Maximizing Benefits of Research Participation: Social Justice and Utilitarianism

Social justice and utilitarianism are two theoretical principles that can guide the conduct of disaster research that maximizes benefits to participants (Ferreira et al., 2015).

The scales of justice

Social justice involves using one’s research as a means of highlighting and addressing the needs of the community being studied, especially for marginalized and vulnerable members. Organizing research around the principle of social justice therefore involves ensuring that all members and groups of the community are included in the study and, ultimately, that the topic and nature of the research will not further stigmatize or contribute to the oppression of already marginalized groups in any way.

The principle of utilitarianism captures the underlying goal that all activities, actions, and behaviors “should strive to achieve the greatest amount of benefit for the greatest number of people” (p. 32).​2​ This means prioritizing the well-being of all those being studied before any personal or organizational goals.

To assess how participants evaluate the costs and benefits of participating in trauma-focused research, Newman and colleagues developed an empirical tool consisting of a self-report questionnaire that can be distributed during the debriefing of a study. The Reactions to Research Participation Questionnaire-Revised​3,4​ asks participants about their level of agreement with statements such as, “I gained something positive from participating” and “I found the questions too personal.” Researchers should consider this standardized assessment tool to ensure that the benefits of research participation outweigh the risks.

  1. 1.
    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. DTAC Supplemental Research Bulletin: Challenges and Considerations in Disaster Research. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2016:1-13. https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/dtac/supplemental-research-bulletin-jan-2016.pdf

  2. 2.
    Ferreira RJ, Buttell F, Ferreira SB. Ethical considerations for conducting disaster research with vulnerable populations. Journal of Social Work Values and Ethics. 2015;12(1):1-29. https://jswve.org/download/2015-1/articles/29-JSWVE-12-1-Ethical%20Considerations%20for%20Disaster%20Research.pdf

  3. 3.
    Newman E, Kaloupek DG. The risks and benefits of participating in trauma-focused research studies. Journal of Traumatic Stress. 2004;17(5):383-394. doi:10.1023/B:JOTS.0000048951.02568.3a

  4. 4.
    Newman E, Willard T, Sinclair R, Kaloupek D. Empirically supported ethical research practice: The costs and benefits of research from the participants’ view. Accountability in Research. Published online January 2001:309-329. doi:10.1080/08989620108573983