Fidelity: the third ethical principle

Posted on by Leslie Gelling in Ethics, Fidelity, Recruitment and retention, Research, Research ethics

So far in this series of blogs I have written about beneficence and non-maleficence so this week I turn my attention to the third ethical principle – ‘fidelity’.  Fidelity is the principle concerned with building trusting relationships between researchers and research participants.  On agreeing to participate in a research project, participants are entrusting themselves to the researcher who has an obligation to protect each participant, as far as possible, from any harm as a result of participating in their research.

It is essential that researchers gain the trust of the participants in their research by being open and honest about possible risks and burdens.  As noted in my previous blogs, no research is without risk so it is essential that potential research participants know what possible risks they might be exposing themselves to.  During the process of providing information, researchers should include all the information someone might need to make an informed decision about participating in the research.  Some might choose not to participate when they know the possible risks but those who decide to consent and to participate are more likely to remain in the research if they trust the researcher and are not surprised by the burden of participation.

It is equally important to ensuring high quality research that researchers are able to trust that participants will do what is expected of them.  For example, in consenting to participate in a clinical trial of a new medicine, participants agree to take the new drug as instructed by the researchers.  If they do not take the medicine according to the study protocol the data collected from that individual will be flawed and this could have a negative impact on the quality of the research and on the development of important new medicines.

During the process of seeking informed consent, researchers will have informed potential participants that they will be able to withdraw from the research at any time and that withdrawing will have no consequence for their future treatment.  A research participant who has a trusting relationship with the researchers will believe this reassurance and will withdraw from the research if they no longer wish to take the trial medicine.  This also has advantages for researchers, who will have better quality data if such participants withdraw.

Another example of the importance of fidelity and the building of trusting relationships is in qualitative research where the quality of the data is again dependent on the quality of relationships between researchers and research participants.  Qualitative researchers seek to explore personal experiences so they need participants to be honest in their descriptions of those experiences.  If participants don’t trust the researchers when they make statements about confidentiality and the anonymisation of data there is a danger that participants might be less than honest about their experiences and might even tell the researchers what they think they want to hear.

Fidelity is a key ethical principle in all research and is closely linked to the other six principles.  It is a two-way process with researchers needing to trust research participants as much as participants need to trust researchers.  If there is a breakdown in this trusting relationship there will inevitably be consequences for the quality of the research.

In next week’s blog I will write about the fourth ethical principle – justice.

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