Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 21, Issue 4, pp 1033–1048 | Cite as

Human Participants in Engineering Research: Notes from a Fledgling Ethics Committee

  • David KoepsellEmail author
  • Willem-Paul Brinkman
  • Sylvia Pont
Original Paper


For the past half-century, issues relating to the ethical conduct of human research have focused largely on the domain of medical, and more recently social–psychological research. The modern regime of applied ethics, emerging as it has from the Nuremberg trials and certain other historical antecedents, applies the key principles of: autonomy, respect for persons, beneficence, non-maleficence, and justice to human beings who enter trials of experimental drugs and devices (Martensen in J Hist Med Allied Sci 56(2):168–175, 2001). Institutions such as Institutional Review Boards (in the U.S.) and Ethics Committees (in Europe and elsewhere) oversee most governmentally-funded medical research around the world, in more than a hundred nations that are signers of the Declaration of Helsinki (World Medical Association 2008). Increasingly, research outside of medicine has been recognized to pose potential risks to human subjects of experiments. Ethics committees now operate in the US, Canada, the U.K. and Australia to oversee all governmental-funded research, and in other jurisdictions, the range of research covered by such committees is expanding. Social science, anthropology, and other fields are falling under more clear directives to conduct a formal ethical review for basic research involving human participants (Federman et al. in Responsible research: a systems approach to protecting research participants. National Academies Press, Washington, 2003, p. 36). The legal and institutional response for protecting human subjects in the course of developing non-medical technologies, engineering, and design is currently vague, but some universities are establishing ethics committees to oversee their human subjects research even where the experiments involved are non-medical and not technically covered by the Declaration of Helsinki. In The Netherlands, as in most of Europe, Asia, Latin America, or Africa, no laws mandate an ethical review of non-medical research. Yet, nearly 2 years ago we launched a pilot ethics committee at our technical university and began soliciting our colleagues to submit their studies for review. In the past year, we have become officially recognized as a human subjects ethics committee for our university and we are beginning the process of requiring all studies using human subjects to apply for our approval. In this article, we consider some of the special problems relating to protecting human participants in a technology context, and discuss some of our experiences and insights about reviewing human subjects research at a technical university, concluding: that not less than in medical studies, human participants used in technology research benefit from ethical committees’ reviews, practical requirements for publications, grants, and avoiding legal liability are also served by such committees, and ethics committees in such contexts have many similarities to, but certain other special foci than medical ethics committees. We believe that this experience, and these observations, are helpful for those seeking to establish such committees in technology research contexts, and for framing the particular issues that may arise in such contexts for the benefit of researchers, and nascent committees seeking to establish their own procedures.


Human subjects Human factors Design Testing Ethics committee IRB 



Many thanks to Hendrik vom Lehn, our assistant for the committee who helped create the table by researching the existence of ethics committees at top technical universities.


  1. Abbott, L., & Grady, C. (2011). A systematic review of the empirical literature evaluating IRBs: What we know and what we still need to learn. Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, 6(1), 3.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Botkin, J. R. (2001). Protecting the privacy of family members in survey and pedigree research. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285(2), 207–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Cupples, B., & Gochnauer, M. (1985). The investigator’s duty not to deceive. IRB Ethics and Human Research, 7(5), 1–6.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Derry, S. J., Pea, R. D., Barron, B., Engle, R. A., Erickson, F., Goldman, R., et al. (2010). Conducting video research in the learning sciences: Guidance on selection, analysis, technology, and ethics. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 19(1), 3–53.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Federman, D. D., Hanna, K. E., & Rodriguez, L. L. (Eds.). (2003). Responsible research: A systems approach to protecting research participants. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.Google Scholar
  6. Gerlach, J. W. (2002). What should IRBs consider when applying the privacy rule to research? Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal, 12(3), 299–303.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Martensen, R. (2001). The history of bioethics: An essay review. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 56(2), 168–175.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Saver, R. (2006). Medical research and intangible harm. University of Cincinnati Law Review, 74, 941.Google Scholar
  9. Whitbeck, C. (2007). Ethics in engineering practice and research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  10. World Medical Association. (2008). World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki: Ethical principles for medical research involving human subjects. World Medical Association.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  • David Koepsell
    • 1
    Email author
  • Willem-Paul Brinkman
    • 2
  • Sylvia Pont
    • 3
  1. 1.Values and Technology Section, Faculty of Technology, Policy, and ManagementDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands
  2. 2.The Interactive Intelligence GroupDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands
  3. 3.The Perceptual Intelligence Lab, Industrial DesignDelft University of TechnologyDelftThe Netherlands

Personalised recommendations