Ethics of Research

  1. Ethics of Targeting the Project
  2. Ethics of Collecting Data
  3. Ethics of Publishing
  4. Ethics of Application
  5. What to do in dubious situations

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The goal and content of a research project - be it to find knowledge or to improve a state of things - will normally be planned from the point of view of the people who are intended to use the findings of the project. Nevertheless, it is quite possible that the project will bring about consequences also to other people than the intended ones. Considering these fortuitous side effects is the topic in a special subdivision of methodology - ethics of research. Its aim is to minimize the inconveniences that a research project might bring about to outsiders, and besides it may try to maximize the benefits from a research project to these anonymous people.

The outsiders that a research project can affect belong to either one of the two "worlds" that research has relations with: either to the scientific community of researchers, or to the practical world of empiria and laymen. A research project often connects to both of these spheres on both its "input" and "output" edges, which altogether make four classes of relations with outside people, each of which can potentially bring about ethical problems. Each of these four classes of relations between a research project and its context are discussed in turn in the following:

  1. Ethics of Targeting the Project
  2. Ethics of Collecting Data
  3. Ethics of Publishing
  4. Ethics of Application

Ethics of Targeting the Project

The traditional aim of scientific research - gathering reliable knowledge about the world - is, of course, quite respectable a goal in itself. However, it is not the only or necessarily the supreme goal in the lives of average people. Other usual targets of everyday human life include innumerable practical aspirations of daily life, or speaking in more general terms: personal enjoyment, peace, safety, enjoying freedom of action and other human rights, and for some people the personal salvation of soul. For achieving any of these, knowledge gathered by research can sometimes help, but not always.

What is said above pertains to the type of research that seeks knowledge. This class of study is here called "descriptive" or "disinterested". Another type of research, the normative one, aims at finding ways to improve the object of study (or other similar objects) and this type of research can sometimes better satisfy the needs of people outside of the scientific world. Nevertheless, normative projects are often financed by private enterprises and their targets are often set accordingly so that they advance the interests of the private originators, not of others.

Reflection on what various groups of people expect from research projects, and trying to steer research to better harmonize with the preferences or needs of the majority of people in the country (or in the world), is a theme that we can call ethics of targeting research projects.

If we start from the ethical principle that research should bring understanding, pleasure and welfare to as many people as possible, we cannot help noticing that the factual amount of research is often in sharp contrast to the desires of people. By far the most expensive research programs are often carried out by large governmental organizations on fields like defence, space research or nuclear power, while just minimal resources are allocated to areas which the greater public would prefer.

The figures below (from Krauch, 1974, p. 172), are from 1969 and from just one country, Germany. However, the situation is probably still today similar in many countries.

Factual R&D expenditures Field of
Preferences of citizens, 
according to questionnaire
. Pollution XXXXXXXXX
. Education XXXXXXXX
. Human relations XXXXXXX
XX Computers XX
. Chemicals XX
XX Transport/

The asymmetry of the table above becomes understandable when we think that research budgets are mostly made and approved of by executives of governments and private enterprises. When these executives select the projects to be started they of course favour those research projects which best support the goals of the organization.
Nevertheless, understanding the situation does not eliminate the need to change the state of the art, if we feel that it would be in the public interest. Available methods for change depend on the type of organization which is responsible for the research:

Private enterprises perhaps know best what kind of research they need, and an outside attempt to alter their research priorities is motivated only when the enterprise's research projects or their application are generating clearly detrimental effects (see below).
For the internal use of an enterprise, for the purpose of pinpointing and launching the most profitable research projects, there are techniques like suggestion scheme, action research and customer feedback.

Governmental agencies are supposed to operate under democratic control and solely for the benefit of the citizens; nevertheless it is not uncommon that their transactions are at variance with the ambitions of at least some citizens. The explanation is that democratic control is usually relatively loose, and the agency has free hands to allocate its resources to those topics which directly support its particular field of activity. Examples of such relatively independent agencies are certain high technology laboratories for e.g. nuclear power, military or space research.
The result is that such projects which promise "just" general benefits to a great number of ordinary citizens, seldom get the highest priority in the eyes of the executives of the specialized agencies. In this way many potentially highly beneficial projects never find the funding and are never started.

Direct outside control of governmental agencies by ordinary citizens is difficult. One of the best methods to bring about changes in the politics of the agency is often public discussion, which includes evaluation, from different viewpoints, of actual research and its applications.

There sometimes arises a need inside a public authority to gather views and evaluations of its activity from the outside. To this end the techniques of technology assessment and participatory design can be used, and also many of those methods that private enterprises use in product development.

Universities could be very powerful actors in promoting democratic balance in research activity. Universities have great proficiency in research and also large free resources in the potential work of the students. Alas, many dominant people in research laboratories think that the most interesting research problems are not necessarily those which outside citizens feel urgent. From inside the laboratory, often such problems seem worth studying which connect closely to existing theory and where well versed methods can be used; in other words, most university laboratories prefer doing "normal science" regardless of the preferences of outsiders. Kuhn, 20, describes its results as follows:

"The creative scientist can ... concentrate exclusively upon the subtlest and most esoteric aspects of the natural phenomena that concern his group. And as he does this, his research communiqués will begin to change in ways ... whose modern end products are obvious to all and oppressive to many. ... They will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers."

Though academic researchers are eager to maintain that their type of research is "basic" and can yield benefits later in the future, it should be seen as an ethical duty of community-financed research to try to get these benefits as soon as possible.

One method to improve the utility of academic research would be to include some kind of utility evaluation of its targets already in an early phase of each new project, in its project planning stage. It could guide the objectives of the study and its whole content into a direction more acceptable to the world outside the normal-science community. The evaluation could be obtained from the industry or from the great public, with suitable methods of survey, or with the help of a permanent committee of laymen. From the viewpoint of a nation it could be regarded as unethical that decisions on large new research projects are today often made by scientists alone. Science is too important to be left to scientists.

Another method for directing the research activity of a university more towards the needs of the outside population is to create arrangements through which individuals can contact the university and get scientific help with their problems. One novel arrangement for this purpose, the Science Shop, has now become fairly common in Dutch universities.

The Science Shop system can help such individuals, local groups and also small enterprises who do not have the financial means to pay for scientific research on topics where they have encountered problems. Usually the client of a Science Shop fulfils all three of the following criteria:

The science shop consists of volunteers, mostly students of the pertinent university, and one or more hired co-ordinators.

When a client arrives at the Science Shop, the staff members of the shop first try to answer the questions on the basis of their own proficiency in the field. If necessary, the co-ordinators analyse the problem, free of charge, and investigate whether solutions for the given problem already exist. If there is a solution available, the science shop supplies the applicant with, for example, the address of an institute or company where the solution can be found. In case there is no ready made solution in the literature or on the market, the Science Shop may try to find a company willing to produce the necessary service or device.

On complicated questions the advice of researchers from the various faculties of the university is taken. Often, a large part of the research work is done by students, without pay and as part of their studies. When the problem seems to be of permanent importance, the Science Shop may try to have the topic included in the course programmes of its mother university.

Sources and www sites discussing science shops and the "grass root" control of research:

Note, finally, that the problem of academic normal science that yields only occasional benefits to the outside community pertains almost exclusively to descriptive science which often is indeed aptly called "disinterested". As a contrast, in normative studies utility of the findings is nearly always the principal assessment criterion. Their close contact with practice helps in directing research into those topics that the community regards as important, and it also tests the results that are achieved when applying the findings into practice, see Evaluating Normative Proposals.

Borrowing a theoretical model. One cornerstone in the rapid progress of modern science is that scientists often base their work on the results achieved by earlier researchers. It is often expedient to borrow a theoretical model from an earlier published report because it makes possible the use of efficient methods of research, for example hypothesis-based study or refining an earlier model. In this way, you do not need to do exploratory research which is usually slow and unpredictable. It is normal and legitimate to use the findings of earlier scientists on the condition that the original inventor is duly acknowledged in the report, see The Ethics of Publishing.

The same reasoning can be applied also to adopting a research problem that has been defined in a published report. You can often find profitable ideas for new projects in the final chapters of research reports, and the original author should not protest if you adopt his proposal as the starting point of your work.

The Ethics of Collecting Data

Truthfulness of Recording

Gathering the Data It should be unnecessary to point out the deleterious effect of faking, presenting concocted data or results that ostensibly seem to confirm the researcher's hypotheses. Alas, now and then we read reports of this harmful misbehaviour in scientific activity.

The worst damage caused by faking data or results is not that the malefactor wrongly gains an academic grade; worse is that the fabricated information will perhaps later be used by others in good faith, which can lead to much unproductive work. -- The procedures which should be followed when you suspect faking are discussed below.

Non-obtrusive Methods

The experience of being the object of a survey or other investigation can be an enjoyable or useful one, and this is, indeed, one of the goals of certain types of development projects like action research. But in other kinds of research projects the role assigned to the object of study is not as delightful; for example in some psychological experiments the participants have been persuaded to behave in a way that they have later repented.

In order to minimize the negative effects on those people who have participated as objects of research, various scientific organizations have published principles which have often been announced as binding rules to the members of the organization, and as recommendations to other researchers. See e.g. the site of the American Psychological Association. Below are some citations from their recommendations:

Filing People

To protect people against being registered in various files, the use of which they may have no idea of, several countries have now adopted legislation. Any researcher wanting to register people must comply with certain published principles, so that, for example, personal data shall:

Animal Objects

Studies with animal objects are strictly regulated both on the legislative level and on the scientific organizations level. One of the more extensive regulations comes from the American Psychological Association. Some extracts:

The Ethics of Publishing

PublishingProgress in science means accumulation of knowledge: successive generations of researchers build their work on the basis of the results achieved by earlier scientists. The resulting knowledge is thus in collective use, which calls for certain internal norms of scientific communities. A classical treatise on these norms is The Normative Structure of Science (1949, 1973) by Robert Merton. It lists the four characteristic imperatives that scientists are supposed to obey in their mutual relations:

In this context, "communism" means that the findings of earlier scientists may be freely used by later researchers. The correct procedure then includes the original inventor being duly acknowledged in the final report. Failing this, the writer gives, wittingly or not, the impression of being himself the originator of the ideas. This kind of misbehaviour is called plagiarism.

The procedures for indicating the original writers are explained under the titles Presenting the results of bibliographical study and List of Sources. The underlying principles are discussed in the booklet, On Being a Scientist - Responsible Conduct in Research, by the American National Academy of Sciences, 1994. Below, some citations from the book.

Announcing sponsors and intentions. It is good practice to indicate in the final report all the sources of external financing for the project, as well as its originally intended use if there is one. The reason is that these factors can have influence on the researcher's conclusions, and it is only fair play when the researcher does not try to hide these potential sources of bias.

The ethics of advertising. Advertisements usually contain a few objective facts about the product: its purpose, size, capacity, price etc., which the customer needs for choosing the right product. Normally the advertiser highlights those facts which certify the superiority of his product and often forgets the weak sides of the product. It is not against the law even if it may a little strain the long-term loyalty of the customer.

Advertisements often contain not only facts but also suggestive messages which aim at creating, disseminating and maintaining favorable mental images in the minds of potential customers in order to persuade them to buy the product or at least to remember and appreciate the brand. These messages can either breed favorable attitudes and strengthen those that are believed to be common among the target group of customers, or they can aim at diminishing attitudes opposed to the advertising company or to its products. This in itself is not unethical.

Advertising becomes questionable when it is used to counter-attack not only negative attitudes but also "unsuitable" facts that could discourage consumers. A notorious example was tobacco advertising in the latter half of 20 century which was so unconcerned about facts that the legislators of many countries prohibited it completely. For example, when the public became worried by the dangers of smoking, one tobacco company started to propagate the mental image of the courageous Marlboro cowboy who supposedly enjoyed facing risks! More examples are given under Advertisement As Message.

The Ethics of Application

Application Some decades ago many researchers wanted to dismiss ethical scruples on the ground that the quest for truth was such an eminent goal that all other activities had to give way to it. At the bottom of this thought was perhaps the tradition of the Middle Ages which subordinated all research to theology.

Such an apotheosis of science is no longer feasible. The modern citizen is no more willing to accept absolute ethical imperatives. Today when we discuss the values around science and research, what we are really talking about are preferences, and everybody accepts the fact that preferences differ from person to person.

Usually the application of research findings will simultaneously yield benefits to some people and disadvantages to other involved parties. Both of these outcomes are discussed separately in the following.

Benefits from the Application

In the normal case a research project will yield more benefits than its costs are (otherwise the project would not be launched at all). Nevertheless, an ethical discussion can be raised on the question of who gets the benefit: who is entitled to utilize the research findings.

Normally the results from research financed by private enterprises remain private property, even if the findings could also interest and benefit other parties. It is up to the owners whether they decide to publish the reports, for example, after a few years when their value to competing firms has diminished.

At the other end of the spectrum are the universities, where all research reports are normally public if there is no exceptional reason to keep them secret. Here the problem is more or less opposite to that of the private sector: the general public gets lost in the flood of research reports which after all mostly contain minor or trivial findings.

One could see it to be an ethical duty of universities and other public institutions to prepare and disseminate information on new research so that the greater public could effectively benefit from it. To this end, the booklet by the American National Academy of Sciences, On Being a Scientist, gives some ideas:

"The scientists might set up a suitable public forum involving experts with different perspectives on the issue at hand. They could then seek to develop a consensus of informed judgement that can be disseminated to the public. A good example is the response of biologists to the development of recombinant DNA technologies -- first calling for a temporary moratorium on the research and then helping to set up a regulatory mechanism to ensure its safety. Science and technology have become such integral parts of society that scientists can no longer isolate themselves from societal concerns."

 "In fulfilling these responsibilities scientists must take the time to relate scientific knowledge to society in such a way that members of the public can make an informed decision about the relevance of research. Sometimes researchers reserve this right to themselves, considering non experts unqualified to make such judgements. But science offers only one window on human experience. While upholding the honour of their profession, scientists must seek to avoid putting scientific knowledge on a pedestal above knowledge obtained through other means."

The researcher usually tries to write his report so that it can be applied as extensively as possible. This is obviously desirable in the case when the study is intended to serve industrial production: it maximizes the number of potential customers. In spite of this aim it has often happened that, even with the help of research, industrial products or standards of products have been composed so that only "normal" people can use them, forgetting children, the elderly, sight and hearing impaired and other people who deviate from the average. This creates problems for these people and also for the manufacturer because it reduces the amount of products that can be sold. In many cases it would have been better to configure the product so that it suits, if not exactly all people, at least a somewhat larger scope of people than just the average ones.

The group of people on who the results of a development project are going to be applied are normally defined as the population from which the sample is selected as the object of empirical research activity like interviews.

Inconveniences Caused by the Application

During the inception and planning phases of a proposed research project, the project is carefully contemplated from one possible angle, the viewpoint of those people who hope to benefit from the project. This is all right; but the researcher should also think about the possible disadvantages, especially those that may ensue to other people than the originators of the project. The various interest groups of a typical development project have been listed by Guba and Lincoln.

If the results of research are to be applied to a certain profession, for example within the fields of teaching, architecture or engineering, the researcher could perhaps look at the conventional norms of the profession for guidance. The associations of some professions have set up documents called "Ethical rules of the profession" etc.

Standard procedures for evaluating the applications of research are presented elsewhere in connection to the type of research in question:

Such evaluations almost always apply the viewpoint of the users or beneficiaries of the project and emphasize its benefits. The drawbacks or ill effects to other people are usually disregarded. Often the researcher explains that the ill effects are not accomplished by him but by unprincipled users of his theoretical findings.
There are nevertheless numerous examples (notably the nuclear bomb) of basic theoretical research which later has led to tremendous consequences to people who initially had no relations to the research project. It thus becomes the responsibility of the scientific community to recognize and discuss the potential for such discoveries. If scientists find that their discoveries may have implications for outsiders, they have a responsibility to call attention to the public issues involved.

In any case, scientists have often special instruments to predict the good or evil consequences of research, and it is their duty to use these instruments and publish the conclusions so that the political agents can do their part. What is especially desirable is to assess the impact of a research project if it may affect such topics of paramount importance as e.g.:

Writings on potential ill effects of research can be found in:

The above facets in sustainable development are today more than just ethical or philosophical issues. Several of them have now grown into vital and global problems and compelling imperatives for the industry. It has also become possible to study and, in some degree, even regulate them with exact methods in the same way as any other technical or financial questions of management. This development is due to the expanding research and theory of industrial ecology, which is discussed elsewhere.

What to do in dubious situations

In the modern society there are several established methods for settling conflicts of interest between people, and many of these can be applied to the relations between a research project and outsiders, too. When a member of the great public wants to prevent disturbances or amplify benefits from a research project, a simple method is to write a letter to the researcher, his organization or sponsor, or to the editor of a newspaper, and propose modification of the research design. More laborious methods are convening a meeting or a temporary interest group, and finally claiming for damages in a court of law.

When the conflict involves scientists only, it can often be settled with the help of special procedures that many scientific communities have devised in advance for typical conflict situations. In several countries, associations of researchers have created rules of conduct for scientists. One example is the booklet, On Being a Scientist - Responsible Conduct in Research, by the American National Academy of Sciences, 1994. It gives advice on the problematic question of how you could and should respond to violations against ethical standards:

"One of the most difficult situations that a researcher can encounter is to see or suspect that a colleague has violated the ethical standards of the research community. It is easy to find excuses to do nothing, but someone who has witnessed misconduct has an unmistakable obligation to act. ... Raising a concern about unethical conduct is rarely an easy thing to do. In some cases, anonymity is possible -- but not always. Reprisals by the accused person and by sceptical colleagues have occurred in the past and have had serious consequences. Any allegation of misconduct is a very important charge that needs to be taken seriously. If mishandled, an allegation can gravely damage the person charged, the one who makes the charge, the institutions involved, and science in general. "

"Someone who is confronting a problem involving research ethics usually has more options than are immediately apparent. In most cases the best thing to do is to discuss the situation with a trusted friend or advisor. In universities, faculty advisors, department chairs, and other senior faculty can be invaluable sources of advice in deciding whether to go forward with a complaint."

"The National Science Foundation and Public Health Service require all research institutions that receive public funds to have procedures in place to deal with allegations of unethical practice. These procedures take into account fairness for the accused, protection for the accuser, co-ordination with funding agencies, and requirements for confidentiality and disclosure."

"In addition, many universities and other research institutions have designated an ombudsman, ethics officer, or other official who is available to discuss situations involving research ethics. Such discussions are carried out in strictest confidence whenever possible. Some institutions provide for multiple entry points, so that complainants can go to a person with whom they feel comfortable. " ... The complete text.

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August 3, 2007.
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