Research ethics are the moral principles and practices that guide how researchers work with information (especially data/texts), human subjects, and animals.
Since 1947, following the publication of the Nuremberg Code, governments (e.g., see Canada) and professional organizations (e.g., see American Psychological Association) have created ethical codes of conduct to protect research subjects and society.
Since 1964, following the publication of the Declaration of Helsinki, investigators working with human subjects have been required to write an IRB Board in the U.S. or an Ethics Committee in the European Union before any research is conducted.
Research ethics are a major concern across academic disciplines, professions, and consumers. Governments, hospitals, universities, and professional organizations have robust policies that guide how investigators work with texts, other humans, and animals, including
- policies for conducting research, such as prohibitions against plagiarism, misrepresentation of data, or fabrication of data
- policies for collaboration, authorship, peer review
- policies for protecting human subjects or animals involved in studies
- policies to account for, avoid, or ameliorate conflicts of interest
- policies for illustrating the value of funded research from governments, foundations, think tanks, and other organizations.
Even so, problems with research ethics endure.
Sometimes investigators cheat and engage in unethical behavior. Politics, economic interests, corporate interests, personal interests — these factors and more are associated with unethical behavior.
And sometimes investigators may not even be conscious that they are acting unethically. People can be unaware of their own confirmation bias, their tendency to ignore disconfirming evidence and selectively seek out evidence that confirms their thesis or research question.
Consumers of research are wise to consider ethics when weighing a study’s truth claims.
In 2009, Dr. Daniele Fanelli, a professor at The University of Edinburgh, conducted a meta analysis of 21 surveys that explored how frequently scientists fabricate, falsify or cook data. Remarkably, she discovered that 33.7% of the scientists surveyed admitted to questionable research practices. When discussing the work of colleagues they assumed 14.12% of scientists falsified data and 72% engaged in questionable research practices:
it is likely that, if on average 2% of scientists admit to have falsified research at least once and up to 34% admit other questionable research practices, the actual frequencies of misconduct could be higher than this.Fanelli, Daniele (5/29/09). How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLOS ONE, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0005738
For researchers, research ethics are not an ornamental feature, an afterthought. Rather, ethical considerations form the foundation of research protocols, guiding the selection of research methods, the techniques used to gather and interpret data, and the ways data are interpreted and represented in research reports.
Examples of Research Ethics
To learn more about research ethics, review the following ethical codes:
- National Science Foundation (NSF)
- Food and Drug Administration (FDA)
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
- US Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Singapore Statement on Research Integrity
- American Chemical Society, The Chemist Professional’s Code of Conduct
- Code of Ethics (American Society for Clinical Laboratory Science)
- American Psychological Association, Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct
- Statement on Professional Ethics (American Association of University Professors)
- World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki
- International ethical guidelines for biomedical research involving human subjects
- International ethical guidelines for epidemiological studies
- European Group on Ethics
- Directive 2001/20/ec of the European Parliament and of the Council
- Council of Europe (Oviedo Convention – Protocol on biomedical research)
- National Institutes of Health (NIH)