Ethical Issues in Student Research


James, a graduate student in psychology, is teaching an undergraduate experimental psychology class, wants his students to conduct their own research projects as part of the coursework. Usually, research that is not going to be published and is solely for educational purposes does not need approval from the institutional review board. However, one group wants to student sex differences in depression by having classmates fill out questionnaires. Does this research topic fall into the same category? This case looks at issues of research involving student participants.


Part 1

James Bowers is an advanced graduate student in psychology. As part of his graduate training he is teaching an undergraduate class in experimental psychology under the supervision of Dr. Holden. James believes that the best way for his students to learn the principles of experimental psychology is to have the students conduct their own research projects, a practice which has been common in other experimental psychology classes. He plans to have the students design and conduct the research projects using other class members as research participants. The projects will be used for educational purposes only, meaning that the projects will not be published or presented outside of class. According to the regulations of his university’s IRB, research conducted for educational purposes that does not contribute to generalizable knowledge is typically exempt from review.


  1. Should the purposes of research studies (i.e. whether they are conducted for educational purposes or meant to be published in a journal) have an impact on whether or not they are submitted for review? Why or why not?
  2. What other factors should impact whether research studies are submitted for review?

Part 2

James consults with senior graduate students in his program who have previously taught the experimental psychology course. They tell James that research conducted for educational purposes does not require review by the IRB, and that they did not submit their students’ projects when they taught the class. Taking their advice, James decides not to submit the research projects to the IRB. James allows his students to generate their own ideas for their research projects. Most groups decide to conduct research on topics in cognitive psychology that pose little or no harm to participants. One group, however, decides to study sex differences in depression by having classmates fill out questionnaires.


  1. Would asking questions about depressive symptoms put research participants at risk? How so?
  2. If James approves this research project, should he submit it to the IRB?
  3. What other ethical issues may arise from conducting this research?
  4. Should James allow the students to study depression?

Part 3

Given his own interest in clinical psychology, James decides that his students should be given the opportunity to conduct research on topics in clinical psychology and permits them to conduct the study on depression. Furthermore, he believes that asking students about their symptoms of depression will not put them at risk since they will merely be reporting on how they already feel.

James ensures that the data is collected anonymously and that the students’ are aware that there will be no penalty for not participating in the research. All the students participate. While James is helping his students code and analyze the data, he notices that two students have reported a large number of depressive symptoms, including hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, sleeplessness, problems concentrating, and irritability.


  1. Is it ethical to ask about psychopathology without intending to treat it? If so, under what circumstances?
  2. What should James do about the two students who anonymously reported depressive symptoms?

Part 4

James decides against trying to identify the two students. Instead, he mentions to the entire class that he is concerned that several students may be suffering from depression. In an attempt to encourage the two students to seek help, he also mentions that whoever reported more than four symptoms of depression should contact the university behavioral health center.


  1. Was it appropriate for James to mention his concerns to the class?
  2. If so, should he have done it differently? How so?
  3. Do the dual roles of teacher and researcher present conflicting responsibilities for James? If so, what are the conflicting responsibilities and how should they be resolved?
. . Ethical Issues in Student Research. Online Ethics Center. DOI:.

Like most institutions of higher learning, James Bower’s university holds that research done only for educational purposes does not come directly under the purview of the IRB.  However, many such institutions require instructors to submit a statement to the IRB indicating the sorts of research that students will be undertaking.  Although individual protocols are not submitted, this enables the IRB to provide cautionary advice about potentially problematic kinds of research that students might wish to undertake.

As this case illustrates, it is possible that particular research projects undertaken only for educational purposes can nevertheless raise unanticipated, serious problems.  IRBs are designed to protect the rights and welfare of human participants.  However, the protection to which participants are entitled is not confined only to those areas that come directly under the purview of an IRB.  What justification, then, can be given for not requiring research done only for educational purposes to be reviewed by an IRB?  First, administratively, requiring every student to submit a protocol would be very time consuming and require a substantial increase in IRB staffing.  Second, given the relative shortness of the standard semester, it might make it much more difficult for students to complete their research projects.  Third, there may be an assumption that instructors will adequately supervise the research projects undertaken by students and not permit them to place participants at more than minimal risk of harm.  So, we might be tempted to say, some sort of procedural compromise is reasonable.

Nevertheless, this should not come at the expense of protecting human participants in research, whether or not this is undertaken for educational purposes only.  Especially since the researchers are inexperienced undergraduates who are just “learning the ropes” in research, careful monitoring of this research is important. 

In this case, the instructor is a graduate student, who himself seems to be relatively inexperienced. It is disturbing that, although James is teaching under the supervision of Dr. Holden, there is no evidence that this aspect of his teaching has received any supervision.  In fact, it does not seem to have occurred to James that he could consult with Dr. Holden about what sorts of research projects by his students would be acceptable.  Why would James talk only with his fellow graduate students?  Something seems seriously amiss here, and perhaps in the department generally, as other graduate students seem to have proceeded unsupervised as well.

The fact that James does not anticipate the risks posed by his students’s depression survey indicates either his lack of experience or indifference on his part.  What would Dr. Holden have advised?  Had he been consulted, he might well have told James that he should not allow this sort of survey to be conducted, at least not without IRB review.  A worry is that Dr. Holden might actually share the attitude of James’s fellow graduate students — if the research falls outside the purview of the IRB, don’t worry about it.

Meanwhile, the survey is conducted by the undergraduate students, presumably unaware that further responsibilities may fall on their shoulders (and James’s) once they learn the results.  How to proceed once they learn that there may be two students who could use professional help with their depression is a difficult issue.  In an effort to preserve anonymity, James reports to the entire class that several students may be suffering from depression.  “Which ones?” the students might ask.  “We cannot tell you directly,” James would reply.  “But if you reported more than four symptoms of depression, you should contact the university behavioral health center.”  How are the students to determine how many symptoms of depression they reported?  Was the survey so direct?  Did it label the symptoms for the students?  Is it likely that only two students will think that they have identified four or more symptoms?  And will it be the right two students?

Unfortunately, James probably has no experience dealing with situations like this, or even with thinking about them.  One of the functions of an IRB is to help researchers anticipate such problems and settle on a good procedure for dealing with them should they arise.  James has deprived himself of all access to this sort of help by failing to communicate with either his supervisor, Dr. Holden, or the IRB.

However, the fact is that the survey placed undergraduate students at risk of harm.  Consider this as a guiding principle: Even if you are not seeking to contribute to generalizable knowledge in your research, you still need to worry about whether your research places anyone at risk.  Saying that risks to participants matter only when generalizable knowledge is sought makes no moral sense.  So, risks matter even if they do not fall under the direct purview of an IRB.  This seems to imply that Dr. Holden has a responsible role to play in this, but chose not to accept it, negligently ignored it, or was somehow denied the opportunity to assume it. 

At the very least, James should have been informed at the outset by Dr. Holden that he should be given the opportunity to review the sorts of research projects proposed by students.  However, a conscientious IRB would also do its best to make all teachers, professors and graduate students alike, aware of its willingness (and desire) to address questions regarding the protection of human participants in any research involving the institution it is serving.

This case examines ethical issues involved in conducting student research, a practice common in undergraduate experimental psychology classes. Specifically, it considers the circumstances under which student research is exempt from review by an institutional review board (IRB) and suggests the importance of incorporating research ethics training into experimental psychology class curricula. This case also examines broader issues in conducting research, and is an example of how poor planning at early stages of research development can lead to complex and potentially risky circumstances. James, the main character in this case, faces increasingly difficult ethical choices that might have been avoided if he had taken greater care in assessing the risks of his students’ research project and submitted their proposal to the IRB for review.

The case begins with James deciding whether he must submit his students’ research proposals for review by his university’s IRB. James considers whether his students’ research, which will be conducted for in-class, an educational purpose only, is exempt from review. Although the National Research Act, Public Law 93-348, states that the generalizability of the knowledge gained from a research study should be considered when making decisions regarding exemption from review, it also states that the potential for harm must be considered. Studies that do not contribute to generalizable knowledge are only exempt from review if they pose no harm to their participants. James is making his decision about whether his students’ projects will require review before he knows enough about them to make such a decision. James must know the nature of the studies before he can make an informed decision whether or not they should be submitted for review.

James consults with more experienced graduate students when deciding whether or not to submit his students’ research projects. Although the input of one’s peers can be invaluable in making ethical decisions, they can also be a source of bias since one’s peers share a common perspective. James and his fellow graduate students may share the perspective that submitting in-class projects for review is far too time consuming to be practical. Including other perspectives into the discussion, including those of potential participants, would assist in predicting risks to participants that may otherwise be difficult to imagine. Submitting research proposals to an IRB is an efficient and effective way to gain diverse perspectives, because the typical IRB includes representatives from outside the scientific community as well as research scientists from a variety of disciplines.

James’ students generate a variety of research project ideas, and most pose no harm to research participants. However, one project involves the assessment of depressive symptoms, and it is less clear what risks may be involved. It is at this point, when James knows the exact nature of the proposed research studies, that he is able to consider whether or not he should submit the proposals for review by his university’s IRB. The studies that clearly pose no harm to research participants would be exempt from review, according to the regulations of his IRB. However, the project involving the assessment of depressive symptoms should be submitted because James is probably unprepared to assess the potential harm of the study. The IRB would most likely be better prepared to assess accurately the risk involved. It is possible that having participants reflect on their depressive symptoms could increase their severity, and because the research is being conducted by students and on students from the same class, the possibility arises that students could learn about each other’s depressive symptoms. Thus, potential risks include the negative effects of asking about psychopathology and the loss of privacy and subsequent damage to the depressed students’ reputations.

Even if asking about depressive symptoms does not harm research participants directly, having this information could increase James’ degree of responsibility for the well-being of his participants and students. James never considers what his responsibility toward his students would be if he learned that several of them were depressed. His role as teacher requires him to consider the well-being of each individual student, and although his role as researcher requires him to consider the safety of his research participants, it also requires him to maintain confidentiality. James faces this ethical dilemma when he learns that several of his students are endorsing symptoms of hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, sleeplessness, problems concentrating, and irritability. Because James failed to prepare for this situation, he is left with imperfect response options. He is unable to identify the depressed students directly, and he feels that saying nothing to the students would be irresponsible. James decides that his best option is to announce to the class that several students may have depression, and he recommends that these students visit the student counseling center.

Because James did not consider the ethical implications of his students’ research projects, and because he did not submit the depression study for review, he faces a series of increasingly difficult ethical dilemmas. James should have submitted the one questionable study for review because he was incapable of assessing the risks and responsibilities involved. In addition, James should have involved his students in discussions about research ethics and the IRB since these are central aspects of conducting research in psychology. This may have helped James to avoid the ethical dilemmas that were to come. However, once he knew about his students depressive symptoms, he was compelled both as a teacher and researcher to take action. Furthermore, once James knew about his students’ depressive symptoms, the harm involved in potentially breaking confidentially was probably less than the harm involved in allowing potentially-depressed students to go without help. Although many research studies assess psychopathology without including treatment, they are typically designed in such a way that research participants are informed of their diagnoses and provided with treatment referrals. James should never have allowed the study to have been conducted as it was, and submitting the study in question to his IRB probably would have prevented him from doing so.


National Research Act, Pub. L. No. 93-348. (1974).