You are on page 1of 25

Research Ethics

• Moral reasoning
• Conflict of interest
• Human and animal subjects in research
• Record keeping/data management/ownership of data
• International research
• Authorship
• Investigating allegations of scientific misconduct
Science is built upon a foundation of
trust and honesty

Incorrect data or incorrect interpretation of data are usually (?)
(often? sometimes?) corrected by the continuing process of
scientific investigations. This is true whether the errors are
caused by mistake or misconduct.
Science tends to be self-correcting.
Why might scientific data be incorrect?
•Poor experimental design or inappropriate assays
•Incorrect assumptions (misled by other work)
•Bad instruments
•Self-deception or rationalizations
•Sloppy science

When is it mistake and when is it a misconduct?
Disagreements and new interpretations are every day
happenings in science
Why fraud in science?
•Career pressure
•Short-cuts to the “correct” answer
•The notion that some experiments yield data that are not
precisely reproducible
Reporting Science

How is is done verses how is it reported.
“Is the scientific paper a Fraud?” (Medawar asks)
What is misconduct?
Mistakes versus fraud
Fraud is misconduct, mistakes are generally not misconduct
(right?) (although, what one does when a mistake is
discovered can be misconduct)
In many cases, it is difficult to determine whether something
is a mistake or deliberate and whether it is ethical or unethical
Some areas of misconduct are defined by
laws, codes or rules
For example
Policies for use of human subjects in research are defined in laws
Rules for authorship are often defined by scientific societies or
Many rules of conduct have been established by common
practice but are not explicitly stated in law or other guidelines
(unwritten standards)
“I cannot define pornography but I know it when I see it.”
(Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart)
The DHHS holds that:
"Misconduct" or "Misconduct in Science" means fabrication, falsification,
plagiarism, or other practices that seriously deviate from those that are
commonly accepted within the scientific community for proposing,
conducting, or reporting research. It does not include honest error or
honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data.
(Federal Register 54:32446-32451, August 8, 1989)
The NSF definition states that:
Misconduct means fabrication, falsification, plagiarism or other serious
deviation from accepted practices in preparing, carrying out, or reporting
results from activities funded by NSF, or retaliation of any kind against a
person who reported or provided information about suspected or alleged
misconduct and who has not acted in bad faith.
(Federal Register 56:22286-22290, May 14, 1991)
“…practices that seriously deviate from those that are commonly
accepted within the scientific community…”

Definitions of misconduct are open to interpretation and most
area of ethics have only vague rules. Moreover, the rule change
over time (what was ethical 25 year ago is unethical today)
We rely on the hope that “I know it when I see it.”
Research ethics
The moral acceptability or appropriateness of specific conduct and
actions that moral agents take in particular situations
•Mistreatment of research subjects (human or animals)
•Accuracy and honesty in recording and reporting data
•Ownership and use of data
•Violations of intellectual property rights
•Interpersonal relationships
•Plagiarism vs copyright violations
•Conflict of interest
How do you assess the acceptability or appropriateness
of a particular act?
Ethical Theory and Moral Reasoning
No one theory can be used to evaluate every situation
All theories pay attention to all or some of six factors
•Interpretations of the facts
•Consequences of the actions
•Obligations of the moral agents
•Rights of the players
•Virtues of the players
Most of the course will be discussion of case studies
Problems students face in these moral discussions:

What if this really turns out to be a test of my moral character?
If I give the wrong answer, will I be ridiculed?
The professor says there is not a right answer, but how often
have I heard that?
These discussions are pointless because often there is no right
Rules for class discussions:
You must participate in the discussions
Be polite (no personal insults; comments should be made as
thoughtful arguments about the issues, not the people making
the arguments)
One person talks at a time
The leader controls who talks and for how long
Do not dominate the discussion; If you have spoken, let other
Two main theories
• Utilitarianism or Consequentialist ethics
• Deontology (rule-base ethics)

Two alternative theories that are widely applied
•Casuistical ethics (evaluation by analogy)
•Virtue ethics
Consequentialist ethics / Utilitarian theories

The course of actions is determined in accordance with its likely
consequences or outcomes rather than its inherent rightness or wrongness.
(Consequentialist conclusions that are especially based on an impartial consideration of
the interests or welfare of others are called utilitarian theories).

We should strive to create the greatest possible balance of good over
Promote human values by maximizing benefits and minimizing harm: the ends
justify the means and the greatest good for the greatest number.
The order of priorities is the good before the right
Thus, in order to make correct moral choices, we have to have some understanding of
what will result from our choices.
Generally focuses on a specific act, not what would be the best course of action for
someone in that kind of situation (telling the truth is generally the right thing to do for the
greatest good, but it may not be the right thing to do in a particular situation).
General moral principals are guidelines, not binding rules.
Ethical Theory
Case study
You discover that a colleague, Dr. X, has published an article
containing erroneous information. You are uncertain whether X
intentionally or negligently included the erroneous information. In
either event, the misinformation is significant in your field of
research and is likely to send other researchers down unproductive
paths. You are aware of no other problems with Dr. X’s research,
and you know that he is up for tenure next year.
What do you do?
In the case of Dr. X, the consequentialist/utilitarian asks:
What harm can come from publishing the erroneous data?
What harm can come from how I respond to the my knowledge?
What harm or good will come to others if the data is not corrected?
What harm or good will come to Dr. X if I bring the discrepancy to
the attention of others?
What harm or benefit would come from talking to Dr. X first verses
harm/benefit to the University or the scientific community (recall, I
do not know whether this is accidental or fraud)?
Can I do nothing?
What harm will come to me depending on which path I choose?
This approach is difficult because, without fast rules, every situation needs to be
evaluate for good and bad outcomes.
Utilitarian theories are criticized for failing to adequately ensure justice in the course of
maximizing good over evil.

If the consequences from your action turn out bad, did you act immorally?
Deontological ethics (rule-base ethics)
Some acts are intrinsically right or wrong, regardless of the consequences.

Rule-based (judgments are made by reference to rules and rule are based on
principles and community/scientific standards.)
Moral rules are binding regardless of the consequence (one must do what is
right, even if it does not result in the greatest good; the ends do not justify the
Deontologists are generally constrained by prohibitions; thus, unintentional
breaking of the rules is not necessarily unethical. (if the standard is that
plagiarism is the intentional use of someone else’s work with out attribution
then negligent failure to cite the quoted work is not plagiarism).
Deontologist do not base ethical judgments on the consequence of the actions.
Strict religious or legal interpretations are deontological. There is one “right”
In the case of Dr. X, the deontologists asks:

What is Dr. X’s duty in publishing his data and what is my duty now
that I know there are errors in the article?
Clearly, there is a duty to report the finding accurately.
But the deontologists needs to know whether the erroneous data was
reported deliberately or negligently.
If the data were deliberately misrepresented (and even if they are
not), then there may be a moral (legal?) obligation to report him or
see that an investigation is undertaken.
This view can be difficult to justify because the consequences of following the rules are
not considered.
This is particularly difficult if the rules are bad, immoral, unjust or impoverishing to
human life.
Casuistical ethics (evaluation by analogy)
•Compare to less complex, similar cases that are easier to evaluate and
have a clear moral resolution, i.e., casuistry.
•It analyzes particular moral problems by analogy to prior paradigm
cases (non controversial), rather than as unique isolated cases.
•Requires practical wisdom; an ability to understand when, and under
what circumstances and conditions the rules are relevant and should
•Can help decide whether something is ethical and also may give
guidance on what to do about it (report the plagiarizer or not)
In the case of Dr. X, the casuistical approach asks:

What are the prototype cases that provide the boundaries for
assessing Dr. X’s erroneous publication? Is it more like a cases of
deliberate falsification for personal gain or more like a case of
negligent oversight?
If the former, it is unethical. If the later it may be excusable and
not considered wrongdoing.
Information about Dr. X’s motives are needed to determine which
case is most similar.
Criticized for results that are unprincipled and discretionary (arbitrary).
Virtue ethics

Focus on the character and moral qualities of the players. What is their
history, character, motives, intentions. Do the player have the habit or
disposition to act morally and do what is right? There is less concern with
rules, standards and outcome.
However, rules and outcome will reflect on the character and
virtuousness of the player.
Virtue ethics can be important where there is a clear violation of ethics or
standards. Virtue ethics may be most important in determining
consequences in cases of misconduct. (is this a person who made a
mistake or is there a pattern or wrongdoing from a person that lacks virtue
and good character?)
In the case of Dr. X. the virtue ethics approach asks:

What is Dr. X’s moral character? Are there other instances with
questionable conduct?
If I approach him, will he deal honestly or cover up misdeeds?
If I tell other, will it damage his character or my character?
What are my motives? To see justice or might I gain something from
damaging his reputation?

Lacks a “moral minimum” for acceptable conduct
Conscience may be mistaken or violate established norms or rules
•Consequentialist ethics
•Deontological ethics (rule-base ethics)
•Casuistical ethics (evaluation by analogy)
•Virtue ethics

In research, no one theory of ethics is appropriate all the time
and usually some aspect of all approaches are necessary.
Understanding the theories may be useful in making final
judgments about the ethics of a specific situation.
Next week:
Read Chapter 6 Use of Animals in Biomedical
Fill out form for case studies 6.3