Examples of Ethical Issues in Conducting Research – Why so Important?
Ethical issues and concerns have a long history in academic and scientific research, but they also tend to change somewhat over time and to vary among modern scholarly disciplines. Research practices considered ethical 100 years ago may be judged barbaric by today’s standards, and common procedures in one kind of research may prove surprising or even horrifying to investigators working in different fields. It is therefore always imperative when deciding how to avoid ethical issues in research to learn about the principles and guidelines that establish the ethical norms in your particular research area, at your own institution and among the publishers to whom you submit your writing for consideration. These should be prioritised as you design, conduct and report your research, but be aware also that many of these guidelines contain the same basic advice for conducting ethical academic and scientific research. The following ethical examples are therefore common across many fields of study and should in general be observed by all academics and scientists who wish to keep their feet firmly on ethical ground as they conduct their research and prepare their manuscripts for publication.
1. Honesty and integrity in research practices and publications. These are primary concepts in any consideration of how to avoid ethical issues in research. Research data should never be fabricated, dry labbed, falsified, manipulated, trimmed, cooked, cherry picked or misrepresented in any way. Doing so deceives researchers and other readers, undermines the fundamental purpose of scientific and academic research to discover truth and advance knowledge, wastes time and resources that could have been used more productively, and in some fields can even be destructive and endanger lives. Deliberately engaging in such research deceptions constitutes research misconduct and has serious professional ramifications such as retractions of published documents and loss of reputation, credibility, employment and research funding.
2. Objectivity and non-discrimination in research designs and practices. Although every academic or scientist possesses a unique perspective that is essential to his or her original research, each study should be designed not according to personal biases, but specifically to address the research question or problem. Practical and theoretical research requirements rather than discriminatory choices should determine the objects, animals or participants studied. Analyses and interpretations of results should be as objective as humanly possible. Explaining and justifying on scholarly grounds any decisions or ideas that may strike reviewers or readers as biased are important aspects of how to avoid ethical issues in research.
3. Careful and conscientious attention and practices in all aspects of research. Research projects should be carefully designed to answer the questions or resolve the problems addressed. Ethical considerations should play an important role in developing and conducting a study. Experiments, observations and other methods should be performed conscientiously and completely. Accurate and thorough records should always be maintained, from initial notes to final data, with the latter being safely stored for effective data sharing with other investigators and for research verification if any questions about procedures arise. Clear and organised records are central when considering how to avoid ethical issues in research, and so are clear and well-written publications.
4. Respect for the work of others and acknowledgement of their intellectual property. This means that all contributions to a research project should be acknowledged in appropriate ways and published sources should be credited through formal citations and references. ‘Borrowing’ text, images, data, ideas and other aspects of the research conducted and/or published by other investigators and presenting it as though it were your own work is plagiarism, and professional researchers concerned with how to avoid ethical issues in research never plagiarise the intellectual property of others.
5. Sincerity and equity to colleagues and co-authors in collaborative research projects. Collaboration is based on trust, mutual respect and appropriate division of responsibilities and credit, so these are vital qualities when determining how to avoid ethical issues in the research conducted with other academics or scientists, including students, postdoctoral researchers and assistants. Collaborative success requires fairness in the distribution of tasks, in the consideration of ideas and interpretations, and in the attribution of authorship. Authorship status must be earned through significant contributions to research design, data collection and analysis, or writing, revising and editing documents for dissemination. Contributions that do not merit authorship should instead be acknowledged.
6. Respect, concern and care for the objects and subjects studied. If your investigation involves animals or human participants, you will probably need to seek approval from your institutional review board or research ethics committee, and you may need to alter your study design in order to avoid ethical issues in the research. You will certainly need to provide the best care for any animals you study and to do everything you can to minimise their discomfort, and it will be necessary to obtain appropriate informed consent from any human participants, whose choices and autonomy must be respected and whose rights, dignity and privacy must be protected. The basic principle is to do no harm, and this extends to objects of study as well, so a Roman ruin, a medieval manuscript or a renaissance painting will require the utmost care and should only be handled by individuals who have been properly trained to do so without causing harm.
7. Submission of research-based writing to no more than one press or journal simultaneously. Considerable time and energy are invested in editorial and peer review, so it is very unusual for academic and scientific publishers to accept manuscript submissions that are also being considered by other publishers. Only if a manuscript is rejected by one publisher should it be submitted elsewhere. If, on the other hand, the manuscript is accepted and published, it should never be submitted elsewhere for publication without explicit permission from the first publisher. The ideal of scholarly publication is to disseminate new research and thereby advance knowledge, not simply to promote individual careers, so duplicate publications are a selfish waste of valuable publication space that could have been used to present new research. Familiarising yourself with a publisher’s guidelines and policies will clarify ethical concerns such as disclosing potential conflicts of interest as well as avoiding multiple submissions and duplicate publications.
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