Ethical Challenges in Testing Psychology

By: Monique M. Chouraeshkenazi  Photo Credit: San Diego State University

By: Monique M. Chouraeshkenazi

Photo Credit: San Diego State University

There are ethical standards in testing psychology due to the unique involvement of observing and conducting research on human subjects. When dealing with people and sensitive (and/or private) information, it is mandated that specific procedures are implemented to ensure researchers are not only protecting the integrity of the work, but are protecting the participants involved. There are ethical codes for psychology, domestically and abroad, that are predicated on testing standards specific to the codes of conduct (Leach & Oakland, 2007). This brings value to ethical standards and the willingness for participants to want to be involved in experiments. It is understood that any psychological test conducted, the findings will not be disclosed to other individuals and/or companies that are not involved in the process (McIntire & Miller, 2007). 

Next, ethical codes are useful because it is important for researchers to be clear on what they plan to do with the results. When I conducted research for my dissertation, I had to interview senior defense leadership about the acquisition I researched. It was very important that they know that not only would they remain anonymous (optional), it would be clear on what I would do with the information after it had been analyze, interpreted, and produced results. This was a determining factor with some deciding whether to move forward with the interview. Ethical principles mandate that the participant knows exactly what a researcher’s intentions are with the data collected, how it will be stored, and its use after the research/experiment is completed. 

Sometimes it can be challenging to avoid some ethical issues and protocol should be in place to mitigate violations as much as possible. For example, bias and privacy issues played an important role in my research, based on the topic, the controversy of the acquisition, and the costs that affected American taxpayers. I developed appendices that mitigate ethical behavior within the interviews and ensured privacy would be maintained by controlling interviews in specific locations where it was only the participant and myself.  

Three guidelines that related to using online testing in practice would be: 

  • Resolving Ethical Issues

  • Human relations

  • Privacy & Confidentiality

Resolving Ethical Issues. It is important that ethical issues are resolved before moving forward. When I was conducted my research, I tried to think about all possible ethical issues that could become a problem. For example, I was active duty Air Force at the time, worked at the Pentagon, was a student, and my research was on the United States’ largest acquisition to date: The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program. And guess who the program belonged to? Department of Defense (the Pentagon). I had to conduct “research” for the research on how working in the Pentagon for the Deputy and Secretaries of Defense would not present bias, disclose any sensitive and/or classified information, or show favoritism to my research. Also, there were laws involved on what I could discuss and how I could represent my research to the public. The Department of Defense had its own ethical standards I had to follow, in conjunction with the University’s standards. What made it difficult was that most of my coordination was completed online and I had to have additional protocol to protect the flow of information via the Internet. This was especially important to ensure there were not any conflicts with ethics, laws, and regulations between both agencies (American Psychological Association [APA], 2018). I am sure the same applies for the psychological field when it comes to online testing. 

Human Relations. Most of my interviews were in-person, but a few were conducted via Skype/telephone. This was somewhat challenging because I interviewed people who were considered “special or protected” populations, so I was very cautious about where I would have them meet me for interviews and we did not disclose any direct information of this project on their professional calendars due to many people having access to it. For those that I conducted via the Internet, I ensured security specialists made sure lines were cleared to mitigate infiltration (sounds more serious than what it was). Having them sign a statement, ensuring total privacy and nondisclosure to third parties was nerve-wracking, if something happened that was beyond my control. However, it is important that researchers take the utmost steps in ensuring that their participants and others involved in the research are not harmed (APA, 2018). 

Privacy and Confidentiality. This is one I considered to be the most important since all coordination was online and there were so many challenges that could have come to fruition if I did not do my job of covering all bases to protect my participants, the University, and myself. Maintaining confidentially was key. I ensured all correspondence was with the participant and one immediate staff member (since they were responsible for scheduling and practically the individual’s entire professional life). I ensured all correspondences were labeled “FOUO” (For Official Use Only) to understand there was sensitive, but not classified information within the emails because there was an obligation to protect the participant’s information (APA, 2018). I had all participants sign thoroughly-written confidentiality agreements and disclosure agreements (Informed Consent). And because all my interviews were recorded, I had them sign separate agreements for recording information and how those recordings would be handled (disposed of) after the study was completed. 

All the elements presented are relevant because it deals with ethical standards of how researchers should conduct themselves, have sound protocol to protect their participants, and protect confidential information. My research was an example of working in a “multiple relationship” capacity and I am sure this is especially relevant in psychology, if psychologists are conducting studies with their colleagues or other individuals, which can impose some type of conflict. For example, if a psychologist is working a project with his/her superior, there are two relationships: supervisor and subordinate and collaborative researchers. APA states a psychologist should refrain from such a relationship if the collaboration “impairs the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or otherwise exploits or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists” (2018, para. 7). If this is not the cause, then there should not be any conflicts. 

It is a very complex situation between ethical standards and cyber issues, especially in sensitive fields, dealing with human subjects. As I stated, there were additional issues I had to consider when working with my interviewees, based on having to interact with additional people and all correspondence was completed via Email and the Internet. 

As for the psychological field, I believe the ethical standards hold up to cybersecurity initiatives as much as those who implement and enforces such standards. As McAlaney, Thackray, and Taylor (2016) stated, online communications are as good as those understanding the relationship of trust, interdependence, and the sharing information within a virtual world. Breaching the concept of trust is when problems arise within the psychological field and those in the profession could potentially deal with hackers infiltrating systems to obtain sensitive and personnel information. The ethical standards I mentioned are an amalgamation of characteristics on how those should handle people and their information. Human relations are an especially important, and it is dependent upon the organizations to ensure there are methods in place to protect patients, their information, and enforce privacy and confidentially laws that not only relate to the privacy rights under HIPAA, but those rights patients have when participating in experiments and research studies. Resolving ethical issues in the cyber world through appropriate training and situational awareness is beneficial. I know most fields require this training so those who deal with ethical issues, it is recommended. Additionally, organizations should be held accountable for their IT departments to ensure they have the most innovative systems and security software programs to mitigate cyber hackings and other security breaches. 

The IRB (Institutional Review Board) took about nine weeks for approval of my research because they wanted to make sure that I was aware of the privacy and confidentiality agreements under their realm and then DoD. Under the federal government, all are subjected to the Privacy Act of 1947, which "establishes a code of fair information practices that governs the collection, maintenance, use, and dissemination of information about individuals that is maintained in systems of records by federal agencies" (Department of Justice, n.d.). However, there are instances where psychologists can disclose information, regardless of research ethical policies:

Disclose private information without consent in order to protect the patient or the public from serious harm — if, for example, a client discusses plans to attempt suicide or harm another person.

   - Are required to report ongoing domestic violence, abuse or neglect of children, the elderly or people with disabilities. (However, if an adult discloses that he or she was abused as a child, the psychologist typically isn't bound to report that abuse, unless there are other children continuing to be abused.)

  - May release information if they receive a court order. That might happen if a person's mental health came into question during legal proceedings (American Psychological Association, 2018).

Informed consent is another important element and it is vital that the document is clear on the instructions, the purpose of the study, the participants’ responsibilities, the longevity of the project, risks involved, and that all studies and experiments are voluntarily and they can end their responsibilities at any time. Additionally, informed consent outlines the researcher’s obligations and due diligence to the participant. No matter how much information is annotated to assure all bases are covered, there are still challenges within the process on clarity and comprehension. I personally believe challenges are based on the perception and intelligibility of the participant’s understanding of the research topic and the responsibilities. Nijahawan et al. (2013) expressed that those who sign the consent form are admitting they understand its purpose. The debate is whether one’s understanding of what is expected is comparable to their consent. I have not found this to be an issue when I conducted my research because everyone was an expert on the topic and understood the purpose of my research and the underlying responsibilities. The misunderstanding of consent can lead to many issues, even leading up to some problems that may significantly affect one’s research study, especially if the concern reaches the Institution Review Board.

References

American Psychological Association. (2018). Ethical principles psychologists and codes of conduct. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/ethics/code/ (accessed on 2 July 2018). 

American Psychological Association. (2018). Protecting your privacy: Understanding confidentiality. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/confidentiality.aspx (accessed on 7 July 2018). 

Leach, M. M., & Oakland, T. (2007). Ethical standards impacting test development and use: A review of 31 ethics codes impacting 35 countries. United Kingdom: Taylor & Francis. pp. 71-88.

McAlaney, J., Thackray, H., Taylor, J. (2016). The social psychology of cybersecurity. The British Psychology Society. Retrieved from https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-29/september/social-psychology-cybersecurity (accessed on 5 July 2018). 

McIntire, S. A. & Miller, L. A. (2007). Foundations of psychological testing: A practical approach. 2nded. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 

Nijahawan, L. P., Janodia, M. D., Muddukrishna, B. S., Bhat, K. M., Bairy, K. L., Udupa, N., & Musmade, P. B. (2013). Informed consent: Issues and challenges. National Institutes of Health, 4(3), pp. 134-140. 

U.S. Department of Justice. (n.d.). Privacy act of 1947. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/opcl/privacy-act-1974 (accessed on 7 July 2018). 

Dr. Monique Chouraeshkenazi