Themes in Research Ethics

Research ethics points it’s view at the ethical questions which regard the overall craft of research. Though the content of a research field may promote or make relevant specific ethical questions, research ethics rather focuses on the general ethical questions researchers are confronted with just by doing research. Though it may be hard to always draw a distinctive line, research ethics is thus concerned, not with the content of research, but with the action of research in itself (Hansson, p. 105). The Swedish Vetenskapsrådet lists following simplified ethical rules which any researcher ought to follow (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 10):

1) You shall tell the truth about your research.
2) You shall consciously review and report the basic premises of your studies.
3) You shall openly account for your methods and results.
4) You shall openly account for your commercial interests and other associations.
5) You shall not make unauthorised use of the research results of others.
6) You shall keep your research organised, for example through documentation and filing.
7) You shall strive to conduct your research without doing harm to people, animals or the environment.
8) You shall be fair in your judgement of others’ research.

As we shall see, these rules of thumb may sometimes be in conflict and they carry with them a load of complex issues which blur our assessing ethical view on research topics. In this short overview, we will discuss some of these most prevalent issues.

One issue that concerns any academic is plagiarism. Hansson lists two major forms of plagiarizing, illicit appropriation of words (word-snatching) and the illicit appropriation of contents (contents-snatching) (Hansson, p. 106). As Hansson notices, though there are many ways of advanced word-snatching, which tries to avoid detection, content-snatching is far more difficult to discover. This on one hand has to do with that, in the case of moral philosophy for instance, it is hard to draw a line between a new idea and a new version of an old idea (Hansson, p. 107). On the other hand, many philosophers also write in a style which Hansson calls “thinking from scratch”, thereby not referring to related ideas which already have been expressed by other thinkers (Hansson, p. 107). Furthermore, there are situations in which something is discovered independent of some results already written down, just as there can be an illusion of having thought of something unique (Hansson, p. 108). Thus, though researchers ought to stick to the ethics of how research is to be done, all cases of similarity of ideas are not cases of plagiarism and some authentically, faultless copying of some idea must not necessarily be deemed as such.

Conflicting interests
In many fields of research there are several stakeholders and conflicting interests among them. Cooperations have interests in profit, the researcher has an interest in obtaining knowledge, those affected by the research want their integrity and private lives protected, etc. Such interests will often be in conflict and have to be balanced by moral considerations, laws and regulations. However, it is no secret that morals and the law do not always coincide. How such varying interests are balanced also depends on the type of research and what result it promises (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 20). To what extent for instance, is animal testing to be allowed when trying to cure deadly deceases.
The most obvious cases of threats to the ethicist’s integrity concern paid work for industry and other vested interests (Hansson, p. 110). On one hand, cooperations, with advanced technological cooperations for instance, may create unique chances to have an influence on emerging technologies (Hansson, p. 111). At the same time, such chances come with responsibilities but also risks of biases, conflicts of interest, and losses in credibility. Thus, we are concerned with a balance act where on one hand research needs to be on the edge of what is going on in current development but at the same time consider their integrity (Hansson, p. 112).

Doing harm
Another issue that relates to integrity regards the ethical responsibility to not do harm. As Hansson notices, this not only regards the natural sciences, but also philosophers and ethicists have to consider that their work has impact on individuals and society (Hansson, p. 113; Vetenskapsrådet, p. 39). There may often be scientific cases in which some knowledge has to be obtained, but the means by which to collect such knowledge conflict with some good of those affected by the research (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 20). This is also problematic because the scientific approach will tell us that an appropriate answer to some question is to be achieved via some specific method. As listed, the researcher is supposed to do research according to several rules that safeguard high quality research and the desired result (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 25). There thus may be the case that the method that best ensures the quality of the research will be in conflict with some other good, as personal integrity for instance. So if there is no way to alter the method, we have two conflicting values which have to be brought into balance somehow (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 20).

An important part of research ethics thus considers those who are directly affected by research, as subjects or informants. They should for instance be protected from harms or wrongs in connection with their participation in research (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 12). Here again, the question remains if and when some individual harm is to hinder important research (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 12). Remember that research is important for both society and citizens due to possible improvements in areas such as health, environment and quality of life (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 13). It is also important to notice that much harm which is done is not under the control of the researches. For instance, the right to secrecy, anonymity and confidentiality cannot not be guaranteed by the researcher. Public access to research material may be guaranteed by the law, making it accessible to everybody. For research purposes, it is also possible that certain rules lay open the identity of persons or their tested properties to researchers, but they are not allowed to contact the subjects (Vetenskapsrådet, p. 40).

In our short excurse, we have merely touched upon some of the main points which are discussed in research ethics. The list is not close to complete, but what we have seen is that we are concerned with an utterly blurry vision when trying to evaluate elements of research. It is for instance not clear, when and if research can be seen as being dishonest, since the same loopholes which may be used by smart cheaters, are just those which honest researchers may fall into without any bad intention. Furthermore, in doing research we are faced with webs of conflicting interests and values. Not only do corporations, researchers, institutions, research subjects and those who benefit from it have different interests regarding the same research project, but as we have shown, do ethical rules themselves often stand in conflict with the law or with each other. Thus, in research ethics, we will be utterly involved arguing for and against propositions which would hold some norm over another.

– Sven Ove Hansson, The ethics of doing ethics, Science and Engineering Ethics 2017; 23: 105-120.
– Swedish Research Council, Good research practice, URL:

A good peer is hard to find

The problem of disagreement has received heightened attention in the last decades, creating debates in the fields of epistemology, metaphysics, ethics and linguistics, raising questions such as if we disagree about beliefs or attitudes, or in which situations we actually disagree and when we are merely talking past each other. Thinkers like MacFarlane have suggested that in trying to come to terms with the phenomenon of disagreement we need to accept that we are faced with several types of disagreements, which emerge in different constellations of parameters existing between holders of propositions (MacFarlane, p. 3). One specific type of disagreement emerges between epistemic peers, subjects who are equally equipped for assessment and thus can be expected to make the same judgement. The underlying idea has been forwarded by several thinkers. Max Kölbel for instance uses the term faultless disagreement to describe a situation where there is a thinker A, a thinker B, and a proposition p, such that: (a) A believes that p and B believes that not-p (b) Neither A nor B has made a mistake (Kölbel, p. 53). Kölbel thus describes a situation where two parties have conflicting propositions but neither of them seems to have made a mistake in their judgement. Sarah McGrath uses a similar idea to define what she names controversial disagreement. Accordingly, a disagreement qualifies as controversial if I have no reason to think that my opponent is more in error than I am (McGrath, p. 91). Building on this idea, McGrath introduces the term with which we will concern ourselves with in this text, the epistemic peer. Within her framework, the concept gives an equal weight to the judgement of an opponent who qualifies as an epistemic peer, hence resulting in controversial belief if the two parties disagree. An epistemic peer is as it were, defined by me predicting that my opponent is just as likely as me to arrive at the correct judgement (McGrath, p. 103). As a result, I would have to suspend judgement even if we arrive at different answers, for at this point I have no reason to think that one of the opposing propositions has an advantage over the other, I have no reason to favor any proposition with regards to the assessor’s ability of judgement.

The concept of epistemic peerhood has been held to promote skepticism, the view that we lack knowledge and that all claims to the effect that something has a certain [moral] property are false (Vavova, p. 304; McGrath, p. 87-88). This is supposed to follow from the argument that if we do disagree without being able to find any error that causes the disagreement, this strongly implies that we indeed lack knowledge. I will argue that the cases where this type of disagreement emerges are far less than may be supposed (Vavova, p. 303). Katia Vavova has already made several general observations which hint that the situations in which epistemic peers disagree are rather limited. In her paper from 2014, Vavova lists several factors which are crucial to our reasons for thinking that we are peers, such as how much I know about your respective credentials, if we see ourselves as superior or inferior in some respect, if we have faith in the judgement of our respective credentials, etc. (Vavova, p. 307). Vavova however does not discuss these factors in detail, which is what we will do in this paper. By doing so I aim to show that the premises that qualify two opponents as epistemic peers are not easily met, thereby undermining the skeptical argument from peer disagreement.

Conditions for epistemic peerhood
Whilst the general concept of epistemic peerhood has been stated quite clearly by both Vavova and McGrath, Nathan L. King supplies us with four conditions which have to be met for epistemic peerhood to obtain (King, p. 252). We will walk them through one at a time:

– The disagreement condition: A believes P, while B believes -P
– The same evidence condition: A and B have the same evidence E relevant to P
– The dispositional condition: A and B are equally disposed to respond to E appropriately
– The acknowledgement condition: A and B have good reason to think that the three conditions above are satisfied

The Disagreement Condition requires that the disagreement between peers is genuine, that the opponents take incompatible doxastic attitudes toward the same proposition (King, p. 253). As King however notes, it is quite common to be mistaken about whether this condition is satisfied, which to him becomes evident in the remaining three conditions discussed below (King, p. 253). Though King thinks that the problem of the disagreement condition is quite self-evident and does not get much into why this is so, we will here not take his word for it. As current debate shows, it is on one hand an open matter what we are disagreeing about; are we talking about beliefs or attitudes towards some belief for instance? What we are aiming at when two seemingly opposing propositions clash is thus not clearly defined. Let’s take a simple case. King gives us an example where there is a fact about whether capital punishment significantly deters crime: those who believe that capital punishment does deter crime clearly disagree with those who think that it does not (King, p. 253). This seems rather easy to qualify as genuine disagreement. Consider however Vavova’s similar case. She tells us about two opponents from different political camps who disagree about whether the death penalty is justified because [they] disagree about whether it has deterrent effects. But whether the death penalty has deterrent effects is an empirical matter. [Their] disagreement, then, isn’t a moral disagreement (Vavova, p. 313). Thus, the opponents in Vavova’s case morally agree about what would justify a certain punishment but disagree empirically about the fact of the matter. We do not want to go into all the different realms we can disagree within, as stated before, this is an unfinished debate in itself. However, what Vavova shows is that it is possible to agree on the premises and disagreeing on results and vice verca (Vavova, p. 314). So where are we to put our assessments? Furthermore, even if we follow Vavova’s objection to empirical issues in moral disagreement, it is not clear how in this case empirical matters are to be evaluated. It is no secret that how we evaluate some empirical fact may be prone to ideological or scientific premises for instance. To take a simple metaphor, if 50% of the beer inside my cup remains, some will hold it to be half full, the other to be half empty. The upshot of this is thus, that it is not self-evident that two opponents actually do disagree; perhaps they are for instance only be talking past each other. It is also plausible that the issue which is disagreed about builds on certain background beliefs, which in turn have several layers of beliefs. In trying to get a hold of such beliefs to see if we do disagree will hence often be a very hard task.

The Same Evidence Condition holds that two opponents need to hold the same body of evidence, a condition that to King is not easily met either (King, p. 254). Here is his example:

Mike and Keith are veteran philosophers who teach at different universities. Both specialize in metaphysics […]. Both are very familiar with the arguments in the literature on the problem of universals. There is significant (but not total) overlap in the arguments of which they are aware. […] Mike is a realist who thinks that properties are abstract universals. Keith is a trope nominalist who thinks that realism is false. While attending conferences and through correspondence, they have discussed many of the reasons for their opposing views, yet disagreement remains. (King, p. 254)

In this example, though extreme care has been taken to disclose their relevant arguments, both philosophers are clearly not able to share a common body of evidence (King, p. 255). Also McGrath notes that even experts often have no consensus when it comes to, in her case, moral issues (McGrath, p. 99). Where evidence is complex, it thus seems that it becomes increasingly hard to satisfy this condition. Consider another case:

Peter and David are professional philosophers of the first rank. Both exhibit a wide range of intellectual skills and virtues, […] Peter and David have acknowledged that they exemplify these virtues more or less equally. These philosophers are, in a word, scrupulous with respect to their assessment of evidence. […] they take great care to share their evidence with respect to the claim that . In conversation with one another, they proceed slowly and carefully so as to ensure mutual understanding. They read the same books and journal articles […] thereby acquainting themselves with the same arguments. […] Yet after all this, Peter believes that genuine freedom must be indeterminist in character, while David denies this. (King, p. 256)

This example makes it clear that even in cases where extreme precaution is taken, it is utterly hard to satisfy the same evidence condition (King, p. 256). There may be many reasons for this, such as background beliefs, or that accounts of evidence, such as perceptual experiences, rational insights, intuitions, religious views, etc. cannot mediate the same evidence between individuals (King, p. 256-257). On such accounts, opponent’s respective bodies of total evidence may be overlapping, but not co-extensive due to the subject’s differing intuitions for instance (King, p. 257).

The Dispositional Condition targets the merits of each opponent, which have to be equal for all parties involved (King, p. 258). This may include equality in intelligence and logical skill, but also elements like sense modalities or honesty, carefulness and freedom from bias, etc. are part of the subject’s merits (King, p. 259). Where differences in such merits occur, it is easy to anticipate that there will be differences in reliability of the subjects’ assessments (King, p. 259). King gives us an example with regards to background beliefs which may for instance determine how evidence should be assessed:

[…] two subjects have differing background beliefs about which sources of testimony are reliable. Smith believes that The National Enquirer is a reliable source, while Jones believes that the Enquirer is unreliable, opting instead for The New York Times. Suppose that the Times is in fact more reliable. If both subjects read both periodicals in an effort to possess a shared body of evidence, we would expect Jones to form true beliefs more often than Smith, and false beliefs less often. (King, p. 260)

One way for subjects to be equally reliable is to rate equally well along the relevant dimensions, a direct but very hard and perhaps unrealistic way of satisfying the condition. Another way is to rate disparately along different dimensions, but in such a way that these differences cancel out, if for instance A is better at logic than B, but B is better at reading instruments than A (King, p. 261). However, the problem with this second alternative lay in that different combinations of abilities means precisely that two opponents have differently tuned apparatuses for assessing their evidence which is likely to influence their judgement. Thus, to meet the condition two opponents will have to have the same apparatus for assessment, which we have already stated will often be a hard condition to meet.

Thus far we have described three conditions which categorically (dis-)qualify subjects as being epistemic peers. Turning to the Acknowledgement Condition we now look at the reasons the subjects themselves may have for thinking that they are engaged in a genuine disagreement with an epistemic peer. Vavova amongst others has stated that it isn’t enough that you are as likely as I am to get things right. I have to have reason to think that we are equally likely to be right, I have to have reason to treat you as my peer (Vavova, p. 308). It is important to distinguish this claim from the three conditions discussed above, since they have different truth conditions; for even if one has objectively good reason to think that the opponents is a peer, one might be mistaken.
Vavova notes that my reasons for thinking that we are equally likely to be right or wrong can be varyingly strong and depends on a number of factors, including how much I know about our respective credentials, track records, reliability, etc. (Vavova, p. 307). In other words, they rely on the subject’s assessment of the conditions just described above. But remember that in analyzing these conditions, we have seen that they are hard to satisfy exactly because our ways of assessment carry with them several weaknesses. As the examples of the philosopher’s disagreements above show, even if we ignore elements that are on the subjective side of things, such as intuition, and only focus on arguments and their constituents as evidence, subjects still rarely have reason to think that their opponents have the same evidence (King, p. 261). Or in cases in which judgement requires logical skill one often has little good reason to think that the opponent’s logical skills are on a par with one’s own (King, p. 262). In virtue of all this, subjects will often lack reason to think that they are involved in a disagreement with an epistemic peer (King, p. 263).

Several objections need to be confronted regarding empirical peerhood, also if it is to act as a skeptical argument. We have seen that it may not be clear about what two opponents actually disagree. Putting this debate aside, we have seen that we are not merely concerned with clashing propositions, but also with background beliefs. If we are to include these, how far do we need to investigate into our opponent’s premises to get a hold of where we agree and where we do not. If this is the preferred approach, we seem to end up with a form of Socratic investigation, which may be too time consuming for our everyday coping. Furthermore, on King’s second condition, it seems to be a hard task to guarantee equal evidence held by two opponents, be it the access of the same epistemic factors or perceptual elements which cannot be mediated between subjects. Turning to personal discourse, elements as background belief or intellectual capacities play a great role in determining if opponents can be called peers or not. Vavova mentions similar elements, but is more optimistic that track records, in combination with other personal traits can be used to evaluate opponent’s reliability and skillset (Vavova, p. 307). The question that remains is if this is enough. King would probably argue that after realizing all the limitations we have discussed regarding our four conditions, one might, with good reason, be skeptical towards viewing an opponent as equal on merits. As McGrath notes, even if very good arguments contrary to one’s own position can be made, one may often still have reason to rather suspect error in such positions than in one’s own (McGrath, p. 95).
As King notes, one may object that the four conditions that have to be satisfied are overly strict. However, our overall argument still works even if the conditions grant some flexibility, for instance regarding abilities that would have to match 100 percent (King, p. 264). Surely, it would be unrealistic to hold that two subjects hold exactly the same evidence or have exactly the same ability in logical thinking. This does however not matter to the argument for any reasonable standard for these conditions will presumably still dramatically limit the cases where peer disagreement occurs. The stricter the condition has to be met, the less cases with epistemic peers remain.
The upshot of all this is thus not to deny that epistemic peerhood exists, indeed there may be cases where these conditions are met sufficiently, but the situations in which epistemic peers disagree seem, when regarding all the conditions which have to be satisfied, utterly small and not enough to support a general skeptic argument.

King, Nathan L. (2012), Disagreement: What’s the Problem? or A Good Peer is Hard to Find, Philosophy and Phenomenological Research Vol. LXXXV No. 2, p. 249-272,

Kölbel, Max (2004), Faultless Disagreement. Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, 104,
p. 53-73

MacFarlane, John (2014), Assesssment Sensitivity, Oxford: Oxford University Press

McGrath, Sarah (2008), Moral Disagreement and Moral Expertise, In R. Shafer-Landau (Ed.), Oxford Studies in Metaethics: Volume 3 (p. 87-108). Oxford: Oxford University

Vavova, Katia (2014), Moral Disagreement and Moral Skepticism, Philosophical Perspectives, 28, p. 302-333