Maximising benefit and minimising harm

Maximising benefit and minimising harm (or non-maleficence)

Non-maleficence means that researchers have an obligation not to inflict harm on their study participants. Harm is a contested concept. You can argue that the use of some research methods may cause minor discomfort or harm. For example taking a blood sample may cause temporary discomfort, pain or bruising. Asking certain questions may cause psychological harm such as embarrassment, distress or unwelcome emotions. It is the researcher’s duty to weigh up the potential for harm against the benefits of the study and to come to a justifiable conclusion. It is also his or her duty to make sure that research, which carries a risk of harm, should only be conducted by properly qualified investigators. Therefore, particular care should be taken in decisions about what types of research can be conducted by undergraduates.

In order to address the issue of risk of harm, researchers must show that they have exercised a standard of due care. This would involve identifying the likely risks, assessing the probability that they will occur, evaluating the risk to determine its acceptability in relation to the objectives of the research and finally managing the risks which involves the steps that can be taken to minimise them [Beauchamp and Childress 2001:199].  Examples of managing risk are:

  • the provision of counselling if the research subject is likely to become distressed; 
  • advice about services or help as a result of discussing needs which are not being met;
  • offering the benefits of an intervention after completion of an intervention programme;
  • an explanation of why deception has been used.

Researchers should think about all research from the point of view of the research participants, with the aim of avoiding potential risks to psychological well-being, mental or physical health, personal values, or dignity. Researchers should seek to maximise the benefits of their work at all stages, from start through to dissemination.

Beauchamp T L  and Childress J F  (2009) Principles of Biomedical Ethics.  6th Edition. Oxford University Press. Available in GCU library at 174.2 BEA
British Medical Association (2001)  Consent. Rights and Choices in Health Care for Children and Young People.  BMA Medical Ethics Department. Available in GCU library at 362.10994 C60

These pages have been adapted from the GCU code of good practice in research, the GCU research ethics booklet, and the BPS code of human research ethics.