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Research and Analysis Best Practices in Behavioral Sciences

November 15, 2019

Behavioral health servicesBehavioral and mental health conditions have long been misunderstood and exaggerated. Societal factors play a significant role in how those with behavioral or mental health problems are perceived. Behavioral science research can be used not only to educate the practicing professional but also to educate the public and help fight stigma. With heightened awareness and understanding, health disparities can be eliminated and better health policies developed.

However, before diving into research, there are some best practices we should take into consideration. Below, we will discuss the principles of ethical research, how to disclose funding sources, how to avoid funder bias, and the importance of using inclusive language.

Ethical Research

When it comes to the behavioral sciences studies, it is unethical to conduct research that converts public resources such as foundation funding into private gains. It is unprincipled to conduct biased work. Because research and analysis involve the participation of individuals or groups who have the relevant experience and background, there are also a number of ethical practices to take into account.

The research should not put participants at risk or seriously damage the environment. Informed consent is another one of the foundations of research ethics and is key to minimizing harm, distress, or discomfort for the participants. Participants in a study must not have been coerced or deceived into participating. They should understand the purpose of the research and, more importantly, recognize that they are participating in a study. It's also an ethical practice to discuss research methods and any potential inconveniences participants may experience.

Researchers also should explain how they intend to protect participants' anonymity and ensure their confidentiality. In many behavioral science studies, the subject matter is private or sensitive in nature. Participants want to feel safe when sharing information by knowing that identifiers that reveal who they are will be removed from any published work. If for any reason a study needs to disclose participants' identities, researchers have the legal responsibility to get their permission.

Disclosure of Funding Sources

Behavioral health studies can be costly to conduct and may require multiple funding sources. Research in behavioral science typically is funded by grants from government agencies, foundations, and private companies. However, financial connections between funders and researchers may raise concerns around biases and conflicting interests. Conflicts of interest can occur when the researcher has financial interests or personal relationships with an organization funding the study.

It is a common concern to assume that sponsored studies will favor the sponsor. Complete reporting of financial support sources and the existence of any conflicts of interest allow the research and the accuracy of its published findings to be judged on the merits. Disclosing funding sources also increases transparency and, in turn, public trust.

Disclosure of funding sources is so important in behavioral sciences studies that government agencies such as the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors, Institute of Medicine, and the Centers for Disease Control have established guidelines for authors to disclose funding sources and financial relationships that may bias their decisions, activities, and work.

For research to be respected, well-received, and assessed fully and fairly, it should be free of funder bias. In a future post we will more fully explore why it’s essential to avoid funder bias and will talk about the importance of using inclusive language and why the communication of research findings is more effective when the research itself is non-discriminatory, unbiased, and free of judgmental labels.

Peter Gamache, PhD, and Jackie Sue Griffin, MBA, MS, are principals at Turnaround Life, Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps others with grant writing, program development, capacity building, and evaluation.

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