To Control or Not To Control?


This scenario highlights potential dilemmas encountered by postdoctoral fellows in a research setting. What is the role of a dissertation committee and how should committees handle conflicts of interest between research and employment obligations?


Sherry is embarking on the last stage of her M.S. degree in counseling -- her research thesis. She decides to move out of state to join her fiancé. She feels that working with her thesis committee from a distance will not be an obstacle to completing her thesis. Her committee members state that it would be easier if she stayed in residence at the university while completing the thesis, but they agree that Sherry's plan is workable.

Soon after arriving in her new location, Sherry takes a job as an academic counselor at a technical college of 4,000 students. Her responsibilities for this position involve starting an academic counseling center where she will work with students who are experiencing academic difficulty, especially those who are on academic probation facing dismissal from the college if their grade points do not improve.

Because she is the only academic counselor and because many students are experiencing academic trouble, Sherry finds she is seeing students every 15 minutes for six to seven hours per day. This means that her schedule allows meeting with each student only three or four times per term -- a total of 45 minutes to one hour per student.

Realizing that this limited contact with each student will not provide enough guidance to help the students improve their grades, Sherry decides to offer a 10-week course on study skills, meeting one hour per week. She will offer this opportunity to students who are in danger of being dismissed from school if their grades do not improve within one or two academic terms. To accommodate the at-risk students who indicate their interest in such a course, Sherry determines that she needs to teach 10 sections of the course with 10-12 students per section. This arrangement will increase her contact with these students to 10 hours per term while providing a structured forum for teaching them skills that might enable them to improve their academic standing.

Sherry decides that this course would make an interesting research topic for her master's thesis. She does a review of the literature and finds that successful results have been reported when teaching study skills to students in traditional academic settings, but she can find no research on this topic conducted in a technical college setting.

Sherry writes her research proposal in which she discusses the findings of previous research, states her research question and hypotheses, and describes the procedure that she will follow. Her research design will be a "pre-test"/intervention/ "post-test" design. The "pre-test" will be the student's GPA prior to the study skills course, the study skills course will be the intervention, and the "post-test" will be the student's GPA at the end of the course.

Sherry does not intend to use a control group who receive no intervention because she feels she has enough evidence from previous research to indicate that the intervention will produce an improvement in most students' GPAs. Since she was hired to work with these at-risk students, Sherry feels that excluding some of them from the course would deny them help that she is obligated to provide in her position as Academic Counselor. She considers using students who choose not to participate in the study skills course as the control group, but she decides that this approach will confound her study because simply choosing not to participate suggests that these students differ from students who choose to take the course.

Sherry meets with her thesis committee members and discusses her research proposal. The committee feels that it is critical to the integrity and power of the research that her design include a control group of at-risk students who do not participate in the study skills course. Sherry feels strongly that she should not use a no-intervention control group in her study. She feels that she has an obligation in her role as academic counselor to do whatever she feels would provide the most help to these students. The committee members maintain their position that for her research proposal to be approved, Sherry needs to have a control group. They suggest that she rethink her design decisions. If you were Sherry, what would you do?

Discussion Questions

  1. In her role as academic counselor, does Sherry have any ethical obligations to the students with whom she works? If so, what are they? If not, why not?
  2. Does considering Sherry only in her role as researcher change what you believe to be her obligations to the students? If so, in what ways?
  3. Does Sherry have any ethical obligations to her employer with respect to her decision? If so, what are they? If not, why not?
  4. Sherry is concerned that it would be unethical to withhold the intervention from some students. Is her concern legitimate? Why or why not?
  5. Do the consequences of not receiving an intervention make a difference when deciding whether or not to run a control group? In what way?
  6. What might be some alternative research designs Sherry could consider that would help her to avoid her dilemma?

Brian Schrag, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Commentaries, Volume 4, Bloomington, Indiana: Association for Practical and Professional Ethics.

There are two major issues in this case: 1) the role of the faculty members on a student's dissertation committee in advising, directing and approving the student's research, and 2) the potential conflict between Sherry's roles as researcher and as academic counselor. These issues are intertwined in the case, and their separate consideration should help participants in your discussion delineate the ethical issues and evaluate possible courses of action.

The role of the faculty members who serve on a student's dissertation committee is frequently not well defined. Ideally, they should guide the student's work so that the student develops expertise in the field of study and becomes an independent researcher. As the student progresses in the program, the faculty members' role will change along a continuum from teachers supervising a student to colleagues working in partnership with a peer. Sometimes it is difficult for all to agree on where the committee-student relationship is at a given time, and as a result there can be differences in expectations and miscommunications.

Dissertation committee members act as gatekeepers to the degree, but they must sometimes serve as advocates for students, ensuring that they are treated fairly and that their educational needs are met. The faculty members who train students in research have a responsibility to make sure that the students learn the body of knowledge needed by professionals in that field of study. They also have a responsibility to the students, the scientific community, and any research subjects to ensure that the students' research is ethically sound and scientifically useful.(1)  The reason for using a committee is to avoid exploitation of the student, or advice from just one faculty member that might not represent the best experimental approach or that might not be in the student's best interests. Members of dissertation committees are intended to serve as checks on each other.

Normally, one of the members of the dissertation committee is the student' research advisor and as such has the primary responsibility for directing the student's research. In a situation like this case, in which research with human subjects is involved, the faculty research adviser is also responsible for seeing that all regulations for the protection of human subjects are followed. In the event of a violation of these regulations, both the student researcher and the faculty research adviser can be sanctioned.

So, for a number of reasons, both educational and legal, faculty members need to have a significant role in determining the design of research involving human subjects. It is the degree and style of the guidance from the members of the dissertation committee that are problematic in this case. Is the committee being unduly dictatorial in its insistence on a no-intervention control group? Have they seriously considered other research designs? Have they considered the ethical implications of the proposed experimental design? Has Sherry seriously researched and considered other experimental designs? Has she made a well-reasoned case for her design to the committee? Did she talk over the experimental design with her research adviser before presenting it to the entire committee? Are Sherry and the committee really listening to each other? We have very little information about the group dynamics involved in this scenario, but they are important considerations for Sherry as she tries to decide what to do next. Here is an opportunity to play with the details of the case. Propose different scenarios for Sherry's interaction with the committee (for example: The committee just rubber stamps whatever Professor A says is the way things should be done, or Sherry has not looked into and will not consider any design other than her proposed pre- and post-intervention GPA evaluation.), and then brainstorm ways that Sherry could try to break the impasse. For instance, assuming that Sherry has already done her homework on various experimental designs, she might choose one member of the committee to talk with one-on-one in order to work out a compromise with one faculty member as a starting point to convincing the entire committee. The various proposed courses of action could then be evaluated, and your discussion group could then consider plans on how to put the proposal into action.

In evaluating different experimental designs, it will be essential to consider whether they are consistent with ethical standards, and thus one must consider the potential conflict of interest each might introduce into Sherry's relationships with the students she counsels.

In the Belmont Report, the National Commission asserted that "It is important to distinguish between biomedical and behavioral research, on the one hand, and the practice of accepted therapy on the other, in order to know what activities ought to undergo review for the protection of human subjects of research. . . . Research and practice may be carried on together when research is designed to evaluate the safety and efficacy of a therapy."(2)  So it is not simply the coincidence of intervention and research by Sherry that is problematic. It is possible for Sherry to act in both the role of researcher and counselor to the students with whom she works, but the students must be aware of the dual nature of her role and must freely consent to being subjects in her experiment. Regardless of how the study is designed, Sherry will need to submit her protocol to her institutional review board and include her plans to obtain the students' informed and uncoerced consent, and protect their confidentiality. She will also need to allow the students to withdraw from the study at any time without negative consequences.(3)  Meeting these requirements will take thoughtful planning, especially ensuring that the students do not feel that they ought to agree to be part of Sherry's study if they want to take her study skills course.

However, the problematic part of the experimental design for Sherry and her dissertation committee has to do with the way in which she will evaluate the efficacy of her intervention with the study skills course. Sherry appears to want to minimize the effect of her research on the students with whom she works by simply looking at GPAs for students before and after the course. She is emphasizing the ethical concerns and is reluctant to offer any of her students anything less than what she believes to be the best intervention. The dissertation committee, on the other hand, seems to be emphasizing the scientific concern for producing the most clear-cut result possible from the experiment. Neither concern is irrelevant, and concern that the experiment yield meaningful results is also an ethical concern.(4)

What the committee proposes is the educational equivalent of a randomized clinical trial testing the effectiveness of an experimental treatment relative to a nontreatment or placebo control. The IRB Guidebook states that "the justifying pre-condition for ethical use of randomization is that a hypothesis (i.e., the stated experimental hypothesis that the experimental and control conditions have equally beneficial effect) can be reasonably entertained" and that "the use of placebos is generally unacceptable if there is an effective therapy that the subjects could be receiving for relief of severe symptoms or amelioration of a serious condition." In most cases today, the experimental treatment is evaluated relative to the conventional treatment rather than to no treatment at all. Also, one might argue that being in danger of being dismissed from college is a "serious condition,"(5) and a study skills course is an "effective therapy" that some of the students should not be randomly denied just so that a scientific study can be done. However, if it were clear that the proposed study skills course would be effective, then there would be no research question to be investigated. It may be necessary to review the literature again to determine the amount of uncertainty being tested in Sherry's proposal. Even if the hypothesis condition for randomization cannot be met, there may be other ways to identify a control population, although there may be associated problems for interpretation of the data (for example: at-risk students who self-select not to take the course, or at-risk students at a similar school that does not offer such a course).

In addition to the question of whether a nonintervention group is ethically justifiable, there is the potential conflict of roles and interest for Sherry. Is it acceptable to her employer that she experiment with the counseling and intervention that she does with the at-risk students she is to serve? Will she be able to be clear with the students and with herself as to when she is acting as counselor and when she is acting as researcher? Could the fact that she is conducting research connected with her work dissuade some students from seeking her help? The close linkage of her job and her research could also pose a conflict of interest. She may act or advise some students in such a way as to further her research goals over the best interests of the students. Further, bias could be introduced into her analyses of the research data because of interactions with some of the students. It may be too difficult to ensure that she is fulfilling her obligations as academic counselor and researcher, if she is doing research on the same students that she counsels.

Careful consideration of all these issues and design of the research protocol with the guidance of her committee members to minimize the difficulties will be essential, or her research may simply need to be separate from her employment.

  • (1)American Psychological Association, Section 6.06 Planning Research in Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, Effective December 1, 1992; American Educational Research Association, Section VI, Guiding Standards: Students and Student Researchers in Ethical Standards of AERA,
  • (2)National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. The Belmont Report, Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects of Research. April 18, 1979,
  • (3)Code of Federal Regulations, Title 45, Department of Health and Human Services, Part 46, Protection of Human Subjects,1991 and 1994,
  • (4)APA, Ethical Principles.
  • (5)Office for Protection from Research Risk, National Institutes of Health, Institutional Review Board Guidebook, 1993

Author: Karen Muskavitch, Indiana University.

Sherry's Obligation as Academic Counselor

Sherry's Obligation as Researcher

Contribution Research may make to knowledge vs. cost to the research participant

Are there alternative research designs?

Who has the final ethical responsibility?

This case raises concerns about a researcher's ethical obligations to her research and research participants, and how those obligations can conflict with her responsibilities and obligations toward her employer and clients.

Sherry's primary responsibility is working with students who are experiencing academic difficulty, particularly those on academic probation. These students on probation are facing academic dismissal from college if they do not improve their grades in the current or following term. As she works with these students, she decides that they would probably benefit by taking a course on effective study skills. Because of the large number of students experiencing academic troubles, Sherry feels this strategy will be the most efficient use of her time, providing the students with increased contact with her -- ten hours per term as opposed to 45-60 minutes per term.

Sherry is also in graduate school with only her research thesis left to complete her Master of Science degree. She sees this course on study skills for academically troubled students as an interesting research thesis.

At this point, the tension between Sherry's role as a professional and her role as a researcher becomes apparent. Sherry must consider her responsibilities and obligations to her employer and her moral responsibility for the effect of her work with the students. Yet Sherry as researcher must consider the ethical obligation she has to conduct the best research she possibly can.

Sherry's Obligation as Academic Counselor

Sherry may argue that she has a moral obligation to fulfill the responsibility given her by her employer to help students experiencing academic difficulty improve their grades. That means that she will help students to learn skills that could enable them to improve their academic standing. As she has explored the research literature conducted in traditional college settings that focused on low academically achieving students, she finds that positive results have been observed when those students learn appropriate study skills.

Even though students at this technical college are drawn from a different population than those who attend traditional colleges, Sherry believes that her students would probably benefit as much, if not more, from learning successful study skills. Perhaps because of her review of the research literature, she finds study skills to be the most successful factor in helping students improve their academic standing.

Given Sherry's feeling of responsibility (to her employer and to the students) to help the students improve their grades, it is understandable that she would feel an ethical obligation to provide these students the opportunity to learn successful study skills, increasing their chances of getting off academic probation and eventually earning their college degrees.

Sherry's Obligation as Researcher

Sherry could argue that it is "the initial ethical obligation of psychologists to conduct the best research of which they are capable."(1)  It is her thesis committee's opinion that the best design for her research will include a control group of students who do not receive the study skills course or any other treatment intervention for the duration of the study.

Sherry could agree with her thesis committee's position, allowing for a control group whose members receive no intervention. She has an ethical responsibility to conduct her research in the most rigorous and scientific manner possible. Certainly for the research Sherry is proposing, a control group would be the most sound experimental design, and the knowledge that could be gained from this research might be used to benefit an even greater number of students in academic trouble.

However, Sherry decided before consulting her thesis committee that her research design would not include a control group. She made this decision based on the results she found in her literature search, which indicated that the study skills intervention produced improvement in most students' GPAs in traditional college settings. Her concern about the possible negative effect for students who would not receive the study skills intervention led her to believe that priority must be given to the research participants' welfare rather than the best research design.

Contribution research made to knowledge vs. cost to the research participant

Three principles have been proposed for ethical research involving human participants.(2)

Respect for persons. Respect for persons incorporates at least two ethical convictions: first, that individuals should be treated as autonomous agents, and second, that persons with diminished autonomy are entitled to protection.(3)  Respect for persons means that the participants in a study are not to be treated solely as means to an end. If Sherry decides to use a control group, it could appear that she is using the members who receive no intervention only as a means to produce the most rigorous research possible without regard to any negative impact it might have on those participants. The majority of these students are the first persons in their families to attend college. Most had barely passed the college's entrance exam, indicating that their previous education may have inadequately prepared them for this opportunity for a higher education. It is possible that these students' dignity and self-esteem is intimately tied to their success in college. They have indicated their interest in taking the study skills course, evidence that they want to do what they can to improve their grades. Sherry has an obligation to respect their motivations and include them in the course.

Beneficence. Researchers treat persons in an ethical manner not only by protecting them from harm, but also by making efforts to secure their well-being. Beneficence here is understood in a strong sense, as an obligation. Two general rules have been formulated as complementary expressions of beneficent actions in this sense: 1) do no harm and 2) maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.(4)

The principle of beneficence assumes that investigators will carefully think through the implications of their research. This principle means that the research should provide participants with maximum benefits while risks are minimized. Clearly the students who receive the study skills training have a greater possibility of receiving maximum benefits and minimal risks, if any (based on the research literature).

The benefits and risks for students in a proposed control group need to be examined carefully. The risks to the students in the control group may appear to be minimal. If the research shows no benefit to the experimental group, the students in the control group would not have invested their time in a useless course. If the results of the study are positive, they can participate in the study skills course after the end of the study. However, as stated in the case, these students are on academic probation and are in danger of being dismissed at the end of the current academic term if their GPAs do not improve. It is important to understand what success in college might mean to these students. As the first persons in their families to attend college, their families have high expectations for them. Failing at this technical college could have a profound impact on their dignity and self-esteem.

The best possible scenario is that they will have one more term to improve their grades to avoid being dismissed from school. Some of the students in the control group would not have the opportunity to participate during the next term because they would already have been dismissed from school due to academic ineligibility. Those students who had two terms to raise their GPA might had a better chance to do so if they had received the study skills training prior to the term in which they might be dismissed.

Justice. The principle of justice centers on "who ought to receive the benefits of research and bear its burdens."(5)  The Belmont Report conceptualizes the principle of justice as obligating the researcher to determine "fairness" toward the research participants and the interests of society.

Thus, Sherry must consider that "the general ethical question always is whether a negative effect upon the dignity and welfare of the participants is warranted by the importance of the research. . . [and that]. . . in weighing the pros and cons of conducting research that raises ethical questions, priority must be given to the research participant's welfare and dignity."(6)  The benefits to society of evidence that a study skills course does or does not positively impact the success of technical college students in their academic standing will not outweigh the negative effect on students who did not receive the intervention.

Are there alternative research designs?

Sherry could explore other research designs and methodologies that will allow her to conduct sound research and still fulfill her ethical obligations to her students. One possibility would be to use students who do not volunteer to participate in the study skills course as control group participants. The difficulty with this design is that the very act of not volunteering could be an indication that those students so different from the students who volunteer that one could not compare the results. Another design methodology might be for Sherry to take half the students who volunteer for the study skills course and meet with them for the same amount of time as students who take the course, but not work with them on study skills. This design could provide valuable insight as to whether it is the study skills that students are learning that enable them to achieve better grades, or whether it is simply contact and attention from someone who is concerned with their academic progress.

Who has the final ethical responsibility?

According to the APA,

Whether a proposed research project is ethically acceptable. . . is a matter on which the individual investigator is obliged to come to a considered judgment without abdicating this responsibility on the grounds of current practice, regulatory considerations, or judgments by others. . . . The investigator. . . must accept the final ethical responsibility for deciding whether or how to proceed. . . . The teacher or research supervisor should respect the moral judgment of students and assistants. If students or assistants feel a moral reluctance to carry out a research procedure, the supervisor should not pressure them to perform the procedure, even though it seems completely acceptable.(7)

Sherry has the sole ethical responsibility for deciding whether and how to proceed. She cannot abdicate her responsibility to her thesis committee. Even though they might disagree with Sherry's decision, her committee members must not pressure her to go against what she feels are her moral obligations to her students and her employer.

  • (1)American Psychological Association/Committee for the Protection of Human Participants in Research, Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Research with Human Participants (Washington, D.C.: APA, 1984), p. 18.
  • (2)National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, The Belmont Report: Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1979); Robin Levin Penslar, ed., Research Ethics: Cases and Materials (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).
  • (3)National Commission, Belmont Report, p. 4.
  • (4)Ibid.
  • (5)Ibid., p. 5.
  • (6)APA, Ethical Principles, p. 18.
  • (7)Ibid., pp. 19, 21, 30.