When most people think of ethics (or morals), they think of rules to distinguish between right and wrong, such as the Golden Rule (“Do to others what you want them to do to you”), a code of professional conduct such as the Hippocratic Oath (“First of all, do no harm”), a religious creed such as the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not kill…”) , or a wise aphorism like the sayings of Confucius. This is the most common way to define “ethics”: rules of conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Most people learn ethical standards at home, at school, in church, or in other social settings. According to Comstock (2013), although most people acquire their sense of good and evil during childhood, moral development occurs throughout life and humans go through different stages of growth as they mature. Ethical norms are so pervasive that one might be tempted to regard them as mere common sense. On the other hand, if morality were nothing more than common sense, why are there so many ethical disputes and problems in our society?
A plausible explanation for these disagreements is that all people recognize some common ethical standards, but interpret, apply, and balance them differently in light of their own values and life experiences. For example, two people may agree that murder is wrong, but they disagree with the morality of abortion because they have a different understanding of what it means to be a human being.
Ethics in society
Most societies also have legal rules governing behavior, but ethical standards are often broader and more informal than laws. Although most societies use laws to enforce widely accepted moral standards and ethical and legal norms use similar concepts, ethics and law are not the same thing. An action can be legal but unethical or illegal but ethical. We may also use ethical concepts and principles to criticize, evaluate, propose or interpret laws. Indeed, over the past century, many social reformers have urged citizens to disobey laws they consider immoral or unjust. Peaceful civil disobedience is an ethical way of protesting against laws or expressing political views.
Ethics in the Disciplines
Another way of defining “ethics” focuses on disciplines that study norms of conduct, such as philosophy, theology, law, psychology, or sociology. For example, an “ethical physician” is someone who studies ethical standards in medicine. Ethics can also be defined as a method, procedure or perspective for deciding how to act and for analysing complex problems and issues. For example, when considering a complex issue such as global warming, an economic, ecological, political, or ethical perspective on the problem can be taken. While an economist might examine the cost and benefits of various policies related to global warming, an environmentalist might examine the values and ethical principles at stake.
Many different disciplines, institutions and professions have rules of behaviour that fit their particular goals and objectives. These standards also help members of the discipline coordinate their actions or activities and establish public confidence in the discipline. For example, ethical standards govern conduct in medicine, law, engineering, and business. Ethical standards also serve the objectives or goals of research and apply to people conducting scientific research or other academic or creative activities. There is even a specialised discipline, research ethics, which studies these standards.
Why is it important to respect ethical standards in research?
Lavery et al (2007), present the following reasons:
First, standards promote research objectives
Like knowledge, truth and error avoidance. For example, prohibitions on fabricating, falsifying, or misrepresenting research data promote truth and minimize error.
Secondly, since research often involves a great deal of cooperation and coordination between many different people in different disciplines and institutions, ethical standards promote values.
These are essential for working collaboratively, such as trust, responsibility, mutual respect and equity. For example, many ethical standards in research, such as guidelines for authorship, copyright and patent policies, data exchange policies, and confidentiality rules in peer review, are designed to protect intellectual property interests while encouraging collaboration. Most researchers want to be credited for their contributions and don’t want to have their ideas stolen or divulged ahead of time.
Third, many of the ethical standards help ensure that researchers are accountable to the public.
For example, federal policies on research misconduct, conflicts of interest, the protection of human beings, and the care and use of animals are necessary to ensure that publicly funded researchers can be held accountable to the public.
Fourthly, ethical standards in research also help to encourage public support for research.
People are more likely to fund a research project if they can trust the quality and integrity of the research project.
Finally, many of the research standards promote other important moral and social values.
Such as social responsibility, human rights, animal welfare, law enforcement and public health and safety. Lack of ethics in research can significantly harm human and animal subjects, students and the public. For example, a researcher manufacturing data in a clinical trial may harm or even kill patients, and a researcher who does not respect the rules and guidelines relating to biological or radiation safety may endanger their health and safety or that of staff and students.
Guidelines for responsible conduct of research
Research ethics provides guidelines for the responsible conduct of research. In addition, it educates and supervises scientists conducting research to ensure a high ethical standard. Below Shamoo (2009), presents a general summary of some ethical principles:
Honestly report data, results, methods and procedures, as well as publication status. Do not manufacture, falsify or misrepresent the data.
Strive to avoid bias in experimental design, data analysis, data interpretation, peer review, personnel decisions, grant writing, expert testimony, and other aspects of research.
Keep your promises and agreements; act sincerely; strive for coherence of thought and action.
Avoid carelessness and negligence; carefully and critically examine your own work and that of your colleagues. Keep a good record of research activities.
Share data, results, ideas, tools, and resources. Be open to criticism and new ideas.
Respect for intellectual property
Respect patents, copyrights and other forms of intellectual property. Do not use unpublished data, methods, or results without permission. Give credit where appropriate. Never plagiarize.
Protect confidential communications, such as papers or fellowships submitted for publication, staff records, trade or military secrets, and patient records.
Publish to advance research and scholarship, not just advance your own career. Avoid waste and duplication of publications.
Help educate, guide, and counsel students. Promote their well-being and allow them to make their own decisions.
Respect for colleagues
Respect your colleagues and treat them fairly.
Strive to promote social good and prevent or mitigate social harm through research, public education, and advocacy.
Avoid discrimination against colleagues or students on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity or other factors unrelated to their competence and scientific integrity.
Maintain and improve your own competence and professional experience through lifelong learning and education; take steps to promote competition in science as a whole.
Know and obey the relevant laws and institutional and governmental policies.
Care of animals
Show due respect and care for animals when using them in research. Do not perform unnecessary or poorly designed animal experiments.
Protection of human beings
When conducting human research, minimize harms and risks and maximize benefits; respect the dignity, privacy and autonomy of human beings.
Research participants should be aware
Informed consent is a key principle of research ethics. It is important that the person invited to take part in the research understands both the benefits and the risks involved. You must have all the information that may affect your decision to participate. Each potential participant in the research should know:
Why the study is done, how long it will last and what methods will be used
If you have the right not to participate or to leave the study at any time
What are the possible risks or benefits involved, if any
What are the limits of confidentiality (circumstances in which your identity could be revealed)
Who can you turn to to resolve your questions.
Different research ethics for different disciplines
There are general ethical codes for different disciplines. The Declaration of Helsinki can be used for biomedical research. There are even ethical research guidelines for Internet researchers and psychologists.
Regardless of discipline, all ethical research guidelines seek to maximize good and minimize negative effects. Research ethics therefore require all participants to give their informed consent voluntarily. All research must seek to answer questions that benefit humanity. The risks should be minimised as far as humanly possible.
Research ethics codes and policies
Given the importance of ethics in conducting research, it should come as no surprise that many professional associations, government agencies and universities have adopted specific codes, standards and policies related to research ethics. Many government agencies have ethics standards for funded researchers.
While codes, policies and principles are very important and useful, like any set of rules, they do not cover all situations, they often conflict and require considerable interpretation. It is therefore important for researchers to learn to interpret, evaluate and apply various research standards and to make decisions and act ethically in various situations.
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You may also be interested in: Axiology in Research
Comstock, Gary. Research Ethics: A Philosophical Guide to the Responsible Conduct of Research. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013.
Lavery, James V., Christine Grady, Elizabeth R. Wahl, and Ezekiel J. Emanuel, eds. Ethical Issues in International Biomedical Research: A Casebook. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
Shamoo, Adil E. and David B. Resnik. Responsible Conduct of Research. 3nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.