Consider this scenario: you find a wallet filled with money. Do you keep it, or do you bring it to your local police station? This situation might be easy to solve, but researchers often face more complex research ethics dilemmas. In addition to knowing what research is, it’s also important to ask what good research is. Is it only empirical, reproducible, and valid? Or should it also be research ethics? Research ethics are moral principles that guide how we determine “right” and “wrong.” Whereas laws are codified rules people must follow to maintain social order, research ethics are the norms of conduct people should follow to promote ideal human character and behavior. By following research ethics guidelines, we act in a way that is “good” instead of “bad.” We use research ethics principles every day without realizing it, when returning a lost wallet, or taking responsibility for a mistake instead of blaming someone else. In academia, plagiarism, cheating, and fabrication of information are examples of unethical behavior. Research ethics standards are not universally agreed upon, leading to different answers to the same problem. The entire research process relies on research ethics: from what we decide to study and how research is conducted to how participants are treated and how contributions are cited. Research ethics are even important when examining the sources of funding. Even though research ethics standards can vary by region, discipline, or institution, there are common themes that determine what makes research research ethics. Being honest, transparent and respecting confidentiality and intellectual property are some examples. Different organizations often have their own codes of research ethics. For example, The World Economic Forum Young Scientists Community lists seven key principles for achieving research ethics research. Who decides what is research ethics and what is unethical? In academia and industry, research ethics committees are responsible for reviewing research proposals, monitoring their implementation, and following up on their results. Committees have the authority to approve, reject, halt, or modify studies if they determine the research to be unethical.
These committees consist of people from different backgrounds—scientists and nonscientists alike—to offer different perspectives on research ethics. There are different types of committees depending on whom or what is involved in the study. Committees make research ethics decisions based on certain principles. For research with human subjects, the Institutional Review Board uses the Belmont Report as the foundation for its decisions. The Belmont Report, created in 1974, lists three key principles: respect for persons, beneficence, and justice. By putting the principles of the Belmont Report into action, the Institutional Review Board considers informed consent to make sure participants understand what they are asked to do for the study, evaluates the potential risks compared the potential benefits, and judges that the selection of participants is fair, with special protections for vulnerable populations. While there are research ethics guidelines in place, unethical research can still happen in any discipline. The “Piltdown Man,” one of the most famous frauds in archeology, was accepted as the missing evolutionary link between apes and early humans for decades. However, the remains were actually from two known species, filed and stained to look like a new one. This dishonesty discredited accurate findings of early human remains in Asia and Africa, delaying the process of understanding human history. Another example, The Tuskegee Experiment was designed to study the effects of syphilis in Black men without their informed consent. Even after penicillin became a known cure for the disease, researchers did not provide adequate treatment to their participants, who eventually died or experienced severe, long-term health problems as a result of syphilis. Finally, The “Monster” Study was conducted at the University of Iowa to find a cause or cure for stuttering. 22 orphaned children, who were unaware that they were participants in this study, were given either positive speech therapy or negative speech therapy .
Some of the children who received negative speech therapy retained speech problems throughout their lives. There are different reasons why unethical research occurs: it may be motivated by a desire for recognition and fame, to get a project done quickly, to publish a finding first, or to climb up the academic ladder. Prejudices and biases may also lead to research ethics violations. Public mistrust of science, harm to individuals, loss of funding, and even the loss of jobs are some of the consequences of unethical research. While some of the effects of unethical research can’t be undone, actions have been taken to prevent unethical research from happening in the future. For instance, the crimes against humanity during World War II brought about the Nuremberg Code, the first international document to advocate for informed consent and voluntary participation in research involving human subjects. Because of the Tuskegee Experiment, the United States passed the National Research Act to regulate biomedical and behavioral research. The committee created by the act was also responsible for writing the Belmont Report. Today, research ethics questions continue to shape the way we think about research. Consider gene editing, a modern innovation, to explore some of these questions. By altering our DNA, do we risk creating a modern-day eugenics movement by “breeding out” undesired traits? Is genetic data private enough to protect personal information? Will gene editing worsen social inequalities? This is not an exhaustive summary of the many roles research ethics play in research and the many topics researchers must consider. Research ethics training, such as courses and workshops, prepares current and future researchers to work in their desired discipline. With the knowledge of research ethics, researchers can make new discoveries guided by the moral compass we all strive to live by.