What Are the Ethical Considerations in Academic and Scientific Research?
Ethical considerations and practices are currently under close scrutiny in academic and scientific communities. Partially this attention is the result of high-profile cases of proven misconduct and increasing numbers of retracted publications, but the ways in which modern technology has enabled certain unethical practices have also contributed, just as similar technologies are now playing a role in detecting those practices. While actual statistics for ethical breaches vary and may well be unreliable in some instances, most academics and scientists still wish to conduct authentic research in entirely ethical ways and have no desire to mislead their publishers, colleagues, students and readers.
However, these same researchers may not always be aware of or thoroughly understand exactly what constitutes ethical or unethical research practices and behaviours. ‘What are the ethical considerations in research and particularly for my research?’ has therefore become a rather common question, which is a good thing for research, scholarship and everyone who benefits from the new discoveries made through valuable studies. Better as well as more ethical research is generally produced when ethical considerations are foremost in the mind of the investigator as a research project is planned, methodology is designed, samples are chosen, methods are implemented, data is collected, results are analysed, findings are interpreted, conclusions are formulated, reports are drafted, papers are edited and manuscripts are submitted for publication.
This is another way of saying that each and every aspect of academic or scientific research may have ethical considerations associated with it. The ethical investigator recognises the importance of understanding the potential consequences of every stage of the research and takes responsibility for learning about the ethical considerations and ensuring that his or her research takes place without ethical problems. The following checklist is intended to help academics and scientists do just that.
What Are the Ethical Considerations in Research?
• Compassionate and efficient research design. When planning research, preparing proposals and establishing methods, thought should be invested in designing research that will produce the most relevant results and the greatest benefits with the least cost, the least wear and tear on delicate objects and the least discomfort or inconvenience to living research subjects. If, for example, a problem can be effectively investigated without using animals in experiments, a design that makes use of them would be neither compassionate nor efficient. Competent and compassionate researchers strive to find a successful balance between research goals and doing no harm.
• Ethical and legal appropriateness and approval. Research procedures should always be legal in the country or region where the research is conducted, and they should also meet the ethical standards or norms observed within the appropriate discipline(s). If animals or human participants are the subjects of study, formal approval from an institutional review board, research ethics committee or similar body is usually required and may entail alterations to the research design. Proposals should accurately represent research plans and researchers must adhere strictly to approved proposals and plans.
• Research objectivity and avoidance of bias. Methodology should be designed and samples chosen for study on the basis of the research and the goal to test research hypotheses and answer research questions. Decisions and choices should never be based on discriminatory notions that are unrelated to the research, and this unbiased approach should be extended to collaborators, co-authors, students and assistants as well. Bringing personal biases to professional research is unethical, so justifying any potentially suspect research decisions and policies through careful scientific or academic explanations of why they are valid and necessary is wise.
• Researcher honesty and research integrity. Honesty is so central to the value of academic and scientific research, which ultimately aims to discover truth, that its importance as an ethical consideration cannot be overstated. Researchers must never fabricate, falsify, manipulate or in any way misrepresent research data when they analyse, interpret and publish their results. Such fraudulent practices undermine the integrity and validity of the research and constitute a disrespectful waste of effort and resources not just on that research, but on any subsequent research conducted in attempts to replicate or validate the work. They may also have negative or even disastrous consequences for individuals affected by the research, such as patients and students.
• Active care and respect for subjects. Researchers enjoy positions of trust in relation to the objects and subjects they study, and this trust must be justified by appropriate behaviour and treatment. Negligence or laziness in this regard is unethical and completely unacceptable. Delicate objects must be handled with care; animals must be provided with healthy food and environments; human participants must be treated with respect and their rights and privacy must be protected. In all cases, minimising inconvenience, stress, discomfort, pain, grief, trauma or anything else of the kind is absolutely necessary, and researchers should consider the potential consequences for participants beyond the strict confines of the research, such as how sensitive information might affect the lives of participants in psychological, social or economic ways were it to become public knowledge. When conducting research about online actions and interactions, the line between what is public and what is private can become hazy, so special care in collecting and using data is required.
• Informed consent from human participants. When conducting research with human subjects, it is essential that they participate voluntarily, without excessive incentive or coercion, and that the researcher obtain their informed consent. This is usually done in writing via a form that clearly describes the research, its purpose, its procedures, its benefits and risks, how the data collected will be used, how participant privacy will be protected, the limits of confidentiality and the fact that participants can refuse to take part in any aspect of the research or withdraw entirely from the project at any time. Researchers must ensure that participants understand what they are agreeing to, and special care must be taken with vulnerable groups of people such as children and patients. Any deceptions deemed necessary to the research should be handled with sensitivity and be followed with a full debriefing at the earliest possible opportunity.
• Recognition and acknowledgement of intellectual property. When researchers consult published sources and make use of them in their own work, they are benefiting from the intellectual property of other authors and must acknowledge that debt through appropriate citations and references. If words, ideas, data, tables, images and other aspects of published or even unpublished work are used by a researcher without proper acknowledgement, that researcher is guilty of plagiarism. Plagiarising one’s own published writing is called self-plagiarism and is also unethical, as is taking credit for the ideas and actions of collaborators and co-authors.
• Fairness in the distribution of duties and attribution of credit. Each individual involved in a collaborative research project should contribute according to their training and abilities and receive fair acknowledgement or credit for their contributions. Substantive contributions to the research design, the collection and analysis of data, or the writing and critical revision of manuscripts for publication or presentation constitute authorship and should be acknowledged accordingly. Principal investigators and primary authors are responsible for ensuring fair division of duties and credits, so they should check publisher and funding agency guidelines for help with difficult decisions.
• Sincerity, truth and professional behaviour in publishing activities. Publishing is a vital part of the research process that enables other investigators in a field to evaluate, replicate and validate the research reported. Published methods and results must therefore represent exactly what was done and what was found without inaccuracies, errors, untruths or misrepresentations. Submitting a research-based manuscript to more than one publisher simultaneously is usually considered unacceptable, so guidelines should be checked before considering it. Publishing the same manuscript via a second press or journal without obtaining permission from the first or slicing data up solely to produce more publications is unethical and unfair to other researchers who have new discoveries to disseminate. Publication should advance knowledge and understanding in a field, not just benefit individual careers. All potential conflicts of interest should be disclosed when publishing a manuscript, and any errors discovered after publication should be declared and corrected via a retraction, addendum, erratum or correction. If a researcher takes on other roles associated with publication, such as peer reviewing manuscripts for an academic or scientific publisher, ethical behaviour means honestly and thoroughly assessing the value of the research without prejudice born of ambition or competition. It also involves carefully maintaining the confidentiality of unpublished material and never using it in any way without the author’s explicit permission.
• Accurate and thorough research records. Throughout the research process and even after publication, it is essential to make and retain records of every aspect of the research. Taking thorough notes while consulting sources saves time and effort when adding citations and references to a document and it can also help prevent unintentional plagiarism. Safe storage or archiving of research data is important for addressing any suspicions of misconduct and enabling data sharing with other researchers. Such data can also provide material for future investigations and publications by the original researcher(s). Remember that sensitive data should be protected and participant identities often need to be obscured or hidden when information is shared with other investigators.
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