Executive Director's Column

Ethics for Psychological Scientists

As a scientific discipline and as a profession, it is important for psychology to articulate its ethical principles. It gives us credibility and respect.

By Steven Breckler, PhD

On April 29 and 30, the APA Science Directorate held a workshop with the Fordham University Center for Ethics Education. The workshop focused on developing a decisional framework to aid investigators and IRBs in determining whether a research protocol qualifies as "minimal risk" under the federal regulations. This is a critical issue when it comes to our interactions with IRBs, and researchers will want to watch for the outcomes of this workshop.

Preparing for the workshop, and then spending two days as a participant, prompted me to think a lot about the ethical context of scientific psychology. I must confess that I have rarely pondered this topic very deeply. As a researcher, and later as a grants administrator, I surely gave consideration to ethical matters. I think most psychological scientists do, and that they implicitly adhere to ethical principles. But what, precisely, are those principles?

For psychological scientists, many of our ethical principles derive from the federal regulations bearing on the protection of human participants in research and on the care and use of animals in research. Yet, we have much more than that to guide us. Since at least the early 1950s, APA has maintained and published its ethical standards of psychologists. The most recent version was adopted in 2002, and is freely available at the APA website (view the Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct).

As a scientific discipline and as a profession, it is important for psychology to articulate its ethical principles. It gives us credibility and respect. It provides a vehicle for resolving ethical issues, and it offers guidance in an often-ambiguous world. Yet, I suspect that many psychological scientists (myself included) assume that APA's ethical principles are mainly intended for practitioners and the clinical context. We assume that it applies primarily to therapist-client relationships, privacy and confidentiality, and record keeping and fees. The ethical principles do address all of these matters. But they address much more.

When I came to work at APA last year, I carefully read the ethics code. It had been many years since I had last done that, and I assumed that it would be a quick read-how much of it could be relevant to a scientist? I was sadly mistaken. The third paragraph of the APA Ethics Code caught my attention:

Membership in the APA commits members and student affiliates to comply with the standards of the APA Ethics Code and to the rules and procedures used to enforce them. Lack of awareness or misunderstanding of an Ethical Standard is not itself a defense to a charge of unethical conduct.

The APA Ethics Code applies to our scientific, educational, and professional roles as psychologists. In addition to the clinical, counseling, and school practice of psychology, it covers research, publication, teaching, education, training, social intervention, consulting, and administration. It connects to the federal regulations that protect research participants and subjects, and goes beyond those regulations in many important ways. The ethical principles of psychologists are just as pertinent and relevant to psychological scientists as they are to psychologist practitioners.

As readers of this column know, the APA Science Directorate is organizing its programs and priorities around Psychological Science for the 21st Century (PSY21). One aim of the PSY21 initiative is to support and promote the responsible conduct of research. Helping psychological scientists to understand and follow our own ethical principles is key. We will support workshops and conferences, develop resources and guides, and do all we can to engage psychological scientists in the ethical principles and standards of our discipline and our profession.