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AJOB Prim Res. 2013;4(3):27-38. Epub 2013 Jul 22.

Moral Stress, Moral Practice, and Ethical Climate in Community-Based Drug-Use Research: Views From the Front Line.

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Fordham University.
University of Pennsylvania.
Bryn Mawr College.



The role of front-line researchers, those whose responsibilities include face-to-face contact with participants, is critical to ensuring the responsible conduct of community-based drug use research. To date, there has been little empirical examination of how front-line researchers perceive the effectiveness of ethical procedures in their real-world application and the moral stress they may experience when adherence to scientific procedures appears to conflict with participant protections.


This study represents a first step in applying psychological science to examine the work-related attitudes, ethics climate, and moral dilemmas experienced by a national sample of 275 front-line staff members whose responsibilities include face-to-face interaction with participants in community-based drug-use research. Using an anonymous Web-based survey we psychometrically evaluated and examined relationships among six new scales tapping moral stress (frustration in response to perceived barriers to conducting research in a morally appropriate manner); organizational ethics climate; staff support; moral practice dilemmas (perceived conflicts between scientific integrity and participant welfare); research commitment; and research mistrust.


As predicted, front-line researchers who evidence a strong commitment to their role in the research process and who perceive their organizations as committed to research ethics and staff support experienced lower levels of moral stress. Front-line researchers who were distrustful of the research enterprise and frequently grappled with moral practice dilemmas reported higher levels of moral stress.


Applying psychometrically reliable scales to empirically examine research ethics challenges can illuminate specific threats to scientific integrity and human subjects protections encountered by front-line staff and suggest organizational strategies for reducing moral stress and enhancing the responsible conduct of research.


ethics; moral distress; moral obligations; organizational culture; psychological stress; research; substance-related disorders

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