Most, if not all, scientists are familiar with the Nuremberg Code, the Belmont Report, and the famously inhumane experiments that made ethical guidelines for conduct of research necessary (for background information on these topics, please see links at the end of the post). And most, if not all, researchers are familiar with the process of submitting the plan for a study to their local Institutional Review Board (IRB) for approval of ethical treatment of study subjects. However, what about situations in which the ethical course of action is unclear?
One of our most recent discussions as trainees in the ASU program was on research ethics. Our group discussed several case studies with a wide variety of ethical dilemmas, including the best way to obtain parental consent in research involving adolescents; working with populations involved in risky health behaviors; what exactly constitutes appropriate incentives for participating in research; and conducting research with participants that may be untrustworthy of researchers.
Each of the situations we discussed was uniquely complex, with many different angles, yet with each case, there was a point where a decision had to be made. Whether it was to intervene with adolescents taking serious health risks (even though it was an observational study) or allow an incentive to remain unchanged (even though some researchers may argue that it is high enough to be coercive), researchers in each of these situations had to pick a course of action and deal with the consequences. Discussion among the group allowed class members to see issues from various angles and brainstorm solutions that would not have been apparent if a single person was trying to make that decision on their own.
Researchers have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of populations. It is their responsibility to those populations to be not only good scientists, but good ethicists as well. This includes not just ensuring that literature searches, methods, analyses, and conclusions are of high quality, but that reasoning, motives, and contingency plans are also sound. In nearly every case we considered, the ethical dilemma faced would have been greatly reduced by involving someone with relevant expertise in the research process—such as a consulting psychologist or a respected community member who understood local customs. Including the right people in a study can help improve the design and ensure that ethics are sound.
What are some of the ethical dilemmas you have faced in research? How have you overcome them?
If you would like real-life examples of research ethics in action, please visit the following website: https://ethicsresearchcore.org/education/case-studies/
For further reading on ethical guidelines in science, please visit the following links: