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Research topics, approaches and contexts bring with them ethical issues—some well understood and easily resolved, some unexplored and potentially risky, and some in which one’s moral outlook is inadequate to the problem. Sometimes the social or political context is such that morally wrong actions are rewarded and morally right acts are punished. Thus, ethical issues in research include conﬂicts between ethical principles, questions of what action will produce the most good, questions that call for a new outlook or approach, pursuit of personal gain at the expense of others (e.g., research fraud, endangerment of research participants) and research in contexts where the scientist is not free to choose his or her own scientiﬁc goals or methods.
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Until issues are understood, scientists can only guess about the risks involved and how to ameliorate them. Although ethical questions are normative (What is the morally right action to take?), answers must often be grounded in scientiﬁc inquiry. For example, when investigators ﬁrst undertook major ﬁeld research on illegal behavior (e.g., prostitution, drug dealing, child pornography) and promised conﬁdentiality in order to obtain honest responses from informants, perceptive researchers wondered, e.g., Can I protect my data from subpoena, and can I gather valid data otherwise? How serious is the threat of subpoena? Would I go to jail if I were to ignore a subpoena of my data? What will happen to research careers and research in criminal behavior if protection from subpoena cannot be assured? Research by criminologists, sociologists, and political scientists has answered these questions, and led to the development of legal protection of data from subpoena. Research administrators, researchers, and students have learned to use these tools.
Empirical and methodological research coupled with social science theory is used to explicate how ethical issues arise, their possible consequences, and how they might be resolved. This research paper outlines a range of topics and approaches employed in research on research ethics. Other articles herein on ethics provide detailed examples.
Prior to the 1960s, most scientists considered their work value free or inherently good. Some scientiﬁc societies developed codes of ethics that were quite general and largely ignored. Some survey researchers worried about possible breaches of conﬁdentiality; and some applied researchers recognized that knowledge is power that may be used for good or evil. However, most researchers were oblivious to the ethical dimension of their work. The ﬁeld of research on research ethics was beyond the imagination of almost everyone.
With the rise of concern about ethics of human research, scientists found that social and behavioral research methods and theories could be used to explore and resolve problems in research ethics. Government funding for such research began to be offered. Increasingly, scientiﬁc societies encouraged such research, scientiﬁc journals published the ﬁndings, and new journals devoted to ethics and science came into existence.
Most research on research ethics uses theory, has methodological components and involves empiricism. However, for simplicity, the discussion in this section focuses on main approaches:
2.1 Empirical Research
The entire range of empirical social behavioral research methods may be used in pursuit of empirical answers to ethical questions. For example, survey research methods have been used to assess whether psychology departments comply with federal regulations in the operation of their subject pools. Experimental methods have been used to examine the effects of various approaches to informed consent on comprehension and decision making, and entire research funding programs have invited proposals on this topic. Psychometric methods have been used to study the scientiﬁc and ethical values of scientists in various disciplines and their relationship to kinds of problems studied and methods employed (e.g., Kimble 1984, Tarnow 1999). Participant observation methods have been used to study the nature of communication concerning informed consent. Econometric measures have examined the costs and beneﬁts of increased institutional monitoring of human research.
2.2 Methodological Research
Methods of designing and organizing research, evoking and measuring responses, and collecting, storing, and sharing data have ethical implications. For example, does a given procedure or method evoke trust, respect privacy, assure conﬁdentiality, or yield valid results? The design and evaluation of methods to ensure that they meet ethical criteria require methodological research. Two major areas of methodological research in the service of ethics are privacy/conﬁdentiality, and the design of ﬁeld experiments. The development of methods for protecting subject privacy and data conﬁdentiality has focused on such diverse contexts as interviews, sampling, collecting data from internet chat rooms, and inter-ﬁle linkage of shared data. Technological developments increasingly permit unobtrusive observation and measurement of behavior which could destroy trust in major institutions in society; discovering and evaluating uses of such technology have become topics of intense interest (e.g., Agre and Rotenberg 1999). The second major area of intensive methodological research has focused on ﬁeld settings where rigorous experimental methods with well designed controls are needed, but ethical considerations prohibit jeopardizing the well-being of subjects by placing them in conditions not of their choosing. This has led to development of quasi-experimental methods that are responsive to both ethical and scientiﬁc requirements.
2.3 Theoretical Research
This approach conceptualizes and synthesizes what is known about a given ethical problem in the service of ethics and good science. For example, Laufer and Wolfe (1977) developed a theory of privacy that accounts for how age, culture, and status determine persons’ regulation of the access of others to themselves. Thompson (1992) synthesized what is known about youngsters’ age and sensitivity to risks of research. Gunsalus (1998a, 1998b) has summarized the destructive conﬂicts and institutional mishandling that often surround whistleblowing, and has synthesized best practices for institutional and individual handling of whistleblowing situations.
2.4 Legal Research
The regulatory environment that is growing around scientiﬁc endeavors inevitably brings with it ambiguities and conﬂicts when applied in areas that the lawmakers did not anticipate. Exact standards of research conduct may leave no room for intelligent interpretation or for resolution of conﬂicting ethical principles. The effort required to follow a given law may be disproportional to the expected results. As examples, Western standards of informed consent and signed consent forms are inappropriate and even disrespectful in many contexts such as ﬁeldwork in cultural anthropology and research in third world cultures. Oral histories often involve sensitive details about living persons but cannot meaningfully be rendered anonymous. Examining and challenging laws governing research and proposing more effective laws requires ability to research and interpret laws in relation to their effect on research within speciﬁc disciplines, methods, and research topics.
3. Topics Of Research On Research Ethics
Topics are organized into 17 categories, nested under ﬁve major headings:
3.1 Theory, Method And Design Issues. These Background Issues Set The Ethical Context Of Research
3.1.1 Values And Epistemology. Scientists’ beliefs about knowledge and reality determine what are considered valid scientiﬁc problems and how data should be collected, organized and disseminated. Whether knowledge is regarded as an unlimited good or as power affects perception of research risks and beneﬁts. Whether reality is regarded as something ‘out there’ or as a construction composed of interaction between investigator and subject inﬂuences which methods (e.g., deception) are acceptable.
3.1.2 Validity. To be ethical, research must be valid; otherwise it disrespects subjects and society by producing false information. Conversely, in pursuit of validity, investigators may use unethical methods (e.g., putting subjects at risk). Much research on research ethics focuses on ﬁnding ways to optimize both beneﬁcence to participants and validity of ﬁndings.
3.1.3 Equitable Treatment Of Participants. Procedural and distributive justice issues may arise in planning, conducting, and applying research. Who sponsors the research? Who beneﬁts? Will the results be used in a way that may harm the subjects or their culture? How are subjects selected? How is the power of the researcher balanced against that of the subjects? What kinds of control groups are acceptable? Who sponsors and pays for the research? When is it unethical to withhold information about sponsorship from subjects?
3.2 Risk And Beneﬁt
The perspective of scientists is inﬂuenced by their research objectives, culture, and experience with the circumstances of those studied. A narrow perspective may negate the promise of scientiﬁc research to be beneﬁcial. Research on risk and beneﬁt seeks to broaden this perspective and enhance the value of research to subjects, their community, researchers, their institution, funders, science, and society. Risks and beneﬁts are generic to all ethical considerations and research topics. However, speciﬁc risks vary markedly in relation to the research context (e.g., laboratory, community, school, workplace, hospital, prison).
3.2.1 Risk, Wrong, And Harm. How does one weigh moral wrongs (e.g., deceiving subjects), versus risks of harm? What determines perception of risk and safety? How can this determination be reached accurately and usefully? How can risk, wrong or harm be assessed?
3.2.2 Beneﬁt And Promise. Beneﬁt is the moral justiﬁcation of research, but it is often simply taken on faith that research is, by deﬁnition, beneﬁcial. How are beneﬁts identiﬁed, estimated, and maximized? Who beneﬁts? Often research has little likelihood of beneﬁting society; does the researcher therefore have a duty to beneﬁt the subjects or their community directly via some services, products, training, or job opportunities connected with the research?
3.2.3 Risk Beneﬁt Assessment. The price of scientiﬁc knowledge is risk and ﬁnancial cost. How is risk justiﬁed in relation to beneﬁt? What is the risk or cost to society of research opportunities that are lost due to ﬁnancial, regulatory, or political pressures? (e.g., see Rosenthal and Rosnow 1984.)
3.3 Agreements And Communication
Research participants have some understanding of what is occurring; how correct and complete is that understanding? How informed and autonomous is the decision to participate?
3.3.1 Informed Consent. There are many possible modes of communication between researcher and subject about the purpose, procedure, and intended outcome of research. What modes are most effective? What information should be included? How can comprehension and decision making ability be enhanced, especially when subject competency (e.g., of children, institutionalized persons, the mentally ill) is at issue? When must guardians and gatekeepers be included in the consent process?
3.3.2 Deception. This may include concealment, mental reservation, lying, self-deception, and distraction of subjects from the main purpose of the study in order to study spontaneous behavior. Deception raises many difficult questions, e.g., how does deception affect persons across their life span? What are methodological alternatives to deception? When is deception acceptable?
3.3.3 Relationships As A Source Of Data. Qualitative research may involve getting to know persons then reporting on some aspect of their lives, often from a critical perspective that differs from the way the persons describe themselves. How is the research problem deﬁned and is this disclosed to the persons? The nature of the relationship, as perceived by the participant and the researcher, may affect how the research problem is deﬁned, how the data are collected and/organized, how the research report is framed, how the results are disseminated and used, and whether the participant is wronged or harmed by this incursion into his or her private life. With the advent of the Internet, researchers are now free to observe or participate in chat room discussions of quite personal and intimate topics. What are their responsibilities to those they study? Should they reveal their presence as researchers? Will subjects’ knowledge of the researchers’ presence have a chilling effect on their chat room participation? What steps should be taken to disguise the identity of the chat room and its participants?
3.4 Acquisition, Presentation And Use Of Data
The many facets of privacy, conﬁdentiality, and data use have been topics of much theory, and subsequent empirical and methodological research.
3.4.1 Privacy. The need to establish boundaries between oneself and others is universal, but differs depending on learning, cultural, social, and developmental factors. People may want to disclose to researchers more than the researcher wants to know, or lie to protect privacy. Researchers’ views on privacy may be inadequate for judging what privacies others want, expect, or create. How can researchers learn what people consider as private and respect that privacy? What new threats to privacy are emerging? New technology brings with it new threats to privacy, but also more powerful safeguards, and a new generation of privacy activists to establish better policies for deterring invasions of privacy.
3.4.2 Conﬁdentiality. Part of the informed consent process typically includes an agreement about how the researcher will limit access of others to individually identiﬁable data. Many risks to conﬁdentiality are not immediately obvious, e.g., subpoena of data, theft from computer ﬁles, or deductive identiﬁcation. How can researchers understand sources of risk to conﬁdentiality and prevent their occurrence? A wide range of statistical, procedural, and legal solutions continue to be developed.
3.4.3 Uses Of Data: Data Sharing And Dissemination. How should scientiﬁc data be disseminated and used? Some data such as videotaped data cannot be rendered anonymous as individuals might be recognized; what safeguards are appropriate to protect the privacy of the research participants? Who may be beneﬁted or harmed? Should harmful data be suppressed? How is misunderstanding of ﬁndings avoided? What should be included or omitted? What are effects of various modes of dissemination? What is the obligation of scientists to contribute to the scientiﬁc literacy of society? How should raw data be documented, archived and shared? Who owns data and knowledge (intellectual property)?
3.5 External Inﬂuences On Research
3.5.1 Government Regulations. Studies of the regulatory process contribute to the development and improvement of research regulation.
3.5.2 Institutional Review Boards. Studies of IRBs focus on their processes, and on their effects on science.
3.5.3 Questionable, Taboo Or Controversial Topics Of Research. Some espouse prohibiting research that could cause irreparable social harm, produce misleading ﬁndings, or be used in politically harmful ways. Which is more harmful, suppression or publication of such research? Studies of the impact of research that blames the victim or otherwise seems to misdirect society’s response to problems seek to answer this difficult question.
3.5.4 Scientiﬁc Integrity And Responsibility. Pressures to obtain grants and to publish may interfere with self-correcting scientiﬁc procedures, and motivate scientists to resort to unethical practices or outright fraud e.g., fabrication of data, plagiarism. Research has investigated conditions that inhibit or facilitate scientiﬁc responsibility.
3.5.5 Ethics And Politics. Scientists who investigate controversial topics may be accused of scientiﬁc irresponsibility. Charges of scientiﬁc irresponsibility or immorality often mask profound political disagreements. Who sponsors or employs the researcher and how the data are used raise complex ethical and political questions. Because these issues usually arise in highly partisan settings, the ensuing conﬂict often fails to enlighten either side. Analysis of speciﬁc case studies can clarify the issues somewhat and suggest guidelines and safeguards.
3.5.6 Animal Rights Activism. An extraordinarily high degree of political activism has surrounded animal research. In what ways has this stimulated the advancement of theory and methodology? In what ways has it damaged scientiﬁc endeavors? Controversy surrounding speciﬁc cases of activism is usually aimed at proving the other side wrong, rather than resolving conﬂicts. Scholarly examination of activism and of the changes that have occurred as a consequence of conﬂict holds promise of guiding scientists to methods and principles that are both more acceptable morally and more beneﬁcial scientiﬁcally.
3.5.7 Education In Research Ethics. In recent decades, there has been increasing concern to educate scientists and research administrators about issues of ethics. The goals have been, variously, to impart greater sensitivity to ethical issues, to teach approaches to conducting research ethically, and to examine and interpret current laws and regulations governing research. A variety of educational formats have been employed within Western societies. The rise of worldwide research programs on sensitive issues such as the epidemiology of AIDS and the intense ethical concerns this has raised, has now resulted in the development of ethics education programs in collaboration with scientists and applied ethicists in Third World countries. Despite signiﬁcant expenditures on research ethics education, there is little understanding of the effects of these various education programs, of the relative effectiveness of the diverse approaches to teaching, or even of the best ways to measure their effectiveness.
While ethical theory and codes of ethics offer important general guidance, intelligent application requires understanding of how ethical problems may arise and of effective solutions to those problems. By its nature, social behavioral research continues into new territory, raises new ethical issues, and requires research to explicate those issues and, where possible, to develop better methodology. Such research may be conducted as part of a project that raises an ethical issue, or as a ‘stand alone’ research activity. It may be the main focus or a sideline of one’s research career. Whatever its origins, it deepens and broadens the ability of social and behavioral research to respect and be responsive to human (or animal) nature, to produce more valid results, and to better serve society.
- Agre P E, Rotenberg M 1999 Technology and Privacy. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA
- Gunsalus C 1998a Preventing the need for whistleblowing: Practical advice for university administrators. Scientiﬁc and Engineering Ethics 4: 75–94
- Gunsalus C 1998b How to blow the whistle and still have a career afterwards. Scientiﬁc and Engineering Ethics 4: 51–64
- Kimble G 1984 Psychology’s two cultures. American Psychologist 39: 833–9
- Laufer R, Wolfe M 1977 Privacy as a concept and a social issue: A multidimensional developmental theory. Journal of Social Issues 33: 44–87
- Rosenthal R, Rosnow R 1984 Applying Hamlet’s question to the ethical conduct of research: A conceptual addendum. American Psychologist 39: 561–3
- Stanley B, Sieber J, Melton G 1996 Research Ethics: A Psychological Approach. University of Nebraska, Lincoln, NE
- Tarnow E 1999 The authorship list in science. Scientiﬁc and Engineering Ethics 5: 73–88
- Thompson R 1992 Developmental changes in research risk and beneﬁt: A changing calculus of concerns. In: Stanley B, Sieber J (eds.) Social Research on Children and Adolescents. Sage, Newbury Park, CA