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.
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).
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: https://publikationer.vr.se/en/product/good-research-practice/