Ethical Challenges

2. Introduction

What does ethics have to do with research?

Ethical codes or principles are an expression of how we should behave as individuals and as a society. They are moral judgments that can be applied to particular situations to help us make decisions and guide our behavior. Inevitably, they are linked to cultural values at a particular time in our history and are subject to change as attitudes and values evolve. What was normative just a half century ago, may be considered insensitive today.

In research there may be a conflict between the expeditious conduct of a study and the burdens of doing what is respectful to animals or humans. On the one hand, researchers are focused on expanding knowledge and on the methodology of their projects such as subject selection, sample size, research protocols, statistical analysis, equipment, and personnel. At the same time, as inherently responsible persons, they try to respect the research environment, which requires attention to the appropriate use not only of physical resources including funds, but also to human and animal subjects.

Aside from direct treatment of human and non-human subjects, how research is conducted is an important aspect of whether or not it is ethical. For example, strict adherence to the research design, protocol and analytic plan is critical to data integrity. Avoidance or disclosure of financial and/or personal conflicts of interest may affect subject recruitment as well real or perceived objectivity or bias in recruitment and in analysis and reporting results. These aspects of research behavior, along with adherence to accepted scientific practice, such as honesty in authorship, data collection, analyses and reporting, avoiding conflicts of interest of reviewers, avoiding misconduct and misbehavior and reporting it if present, all contribute to whether research is ethical.

Only when the research is of sufficient quality to potentially contribute to knowledge can we justify involving humans or animals and utilizing other resources. Ethical considerations may help us decide whether the research should even be done, and if so, how it should be pursued.

How we conduct our scientific endeavors not only affects those directly involved, but also the public’s perception of science and scientists. Results from research provide a basis for further studies, and in addition may influence public policy and legislation. Challenges to scientific integrity can erode public confidence and belief in findings. Therefore, it is important to be transparent, competent, honest, and follow ethical guidelines in regard to research subjects.