Ethical Decision Making in Research

Ethical Decision Making in Research

Although codes, policies, and principals are very important and useful, like any set of rules, they do not cover every situation, they often conflict, and they require considerable interpretation. It is therefore important for researchers to learn how to interpret, assess, and apply various research rules and how to make decisions and to act ethically in various situations. The vast majority of decisions involve the straightforward application of ethical rules. For example, consider the following case, .


Case one:

The research protocol for a study of a drug on hypertension requires the administration of the drug at different doses to 50 laboratory mice, with chemical and behavioral tests to determine toxic effects. Tom has almost finished the experiment for Dr. Q. He has only 5 mice left to test. However, he really wants to finish his work in time to go to Florida on spring break with his friends, who are leaving tonight. He has injected the drug in all 50 mice but has not completed all of the tests. He therefore decides to extrapolate from the 45 completed results to produce the 5 additional results.

Many different research ethics policies would hold that Tom has acted unethically by fabricating data. If this study were sponsored by a federal agency, such as the NIH, his actions would constitute a form of research misconduct, which the government defines as “fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism” (or FFP). Actions that nearly all researchers classify as unethical are viewed as misconduct. It is important to remember, however, that misconduct occurs only when researchers intend to deceive: honest errors related to sloppiness, poor record keeping, miscalculations, bias, self-deception, and even negligence do not constitute misconduct. Also, reasonable disagreements about research methods, procedures, and interpretations do not constitute research misconduct. Consider the following case:

Case two:

Dr. T has just discovered a mathematical error in his paper that has been accepted for publication in a journal. The error does not affect the overall results of his research, but it is potentially misleading. The journal has just gone to press, so it is too late to catch the error before it appears in print. In order to avoid embarrassment, Dr. T decides to ignore the error.

Dr. T’s error is not misconduct nor is his decision to take no action to correct the error. Most researchers, as well as many different policies and codes would say that Dr. T should tell the journal (and any coauthors) about the error and consider publishing a correction or errata. Failing to publish a correction would be unethical because it would violate norms relating to honesty and objectivity in research.

There are many other activities that the government does not define as “misconduct” but which are still regarded by most researchers as unethical. These are sometimes referred to as “other deviations” from acceptable research practices and include:

  • Publishing the same paper in two different journals without telling the editors

  • Submitting the same paper to different journals without telling the editors

  • Not informing a collaborator of your intent to file a patent in order to make sure that you are the sole inventor

  • Including a colleague as an author on a paper in return for a favor even though the colleague did not make a serious contribution to the paper

  • Discussing with your colleagues confidential data from a paper that you are reviewing for a journal

  • Using data, ideas, or methods you learn about while reviewing a grant or a papers without permission

  • Trimming outliers from a data set without discussing your reasons in paper

  • Using an inappropriate statistical technique in order to enhance the significance of your research

  • Bypassing the peer review process and announcing your results through a press conference without giving peers adequate information to review your work

  • Conducting a review of the literature that fails to acknowledge the contributions of other people in the field or relevant prior work

  • Stretching the truth on a grant application in order to convince reviewers that your project will make a significant contribution to the field

  • Stretching the truth on a job application or curriculum vita

  • Giving the same research project to two graduate students in order to see who can do it the fastest

  • Overworking, neglecting, or exploiting graduate or post-doctoral students

  • Failing to keep good research records

  • Failing to maintain research data for a reasonable period of time

  • Making derogatory comments and personal attacks in your review of author’s submission

  • Promising a student a better grade for sexual favors

  • Using a racist epithet in the laboratory

  • Making significant deviations from the research protocol approved by your institution’s Animal Care and Use Committee or Institutional Review Board for Human Subjects Research without telling the committee or the board

  • Not reporting an adverse event in a human research experiment

  • Wasting animals in research

  • Exposing students and staff to biological risks in violation of your institution’s biosafety rules

  • Sabotaging someone’s work

  • Stealing supplies, books, or data

  • Rigging an experiment so you know how it will turn out

  • Making unauthorized copies of data, papers, or computer programs

  • Owning over $10,000 in stock in a company that sponsors your research and not disclosing this financial interest

  • Deliberately overestimating the clinical significance of a new drug in order to obtain economic benefits

These actions would be regarded as unethical by most scientists and some might even be illegal in some cases. Most of these would also violate different professional ethics codes or institutional policies. However, they do not fall into the narrow category of actions that the government classifies as research misconduct. Indeed, there has been considerable debate about the definition of “research misconduct” and many researchers and policy makers are not satisfied with the government’s narrow definition that focuses on FFP. However, given the huge list of potential offenses that might fall into the category “other serious deviations,” and the practical problems with defining and policing these other deviations, it is understandable why government officials have chosen to limit their focus.

Finally, situations frequently arise in research in which different people disagree about the proper course of action and there is no broad consensus about what should be done. In these situations, there may be good arguments on both sides of the issue and different ethical principles may conflict. These situations create difficult decisions for research known as ethical or moral dilemmas. Consider the following case:

Case three:

Dr. Wexford is the principal investigator of a large, epidemiological study on the health of 10,000 agricultural workers. She has an impressive dataset that includes information on demographics, environmental exposures, diet, genetics, and various disease outcomes such as cancer, Parkinson’s disease (PD), and ALS. She has just published a paper on the relationship between pesticide exposure and PD in a prestigious journal. She is planning to publish many other papers from her dataset. She receives a request from another research team that wants access to her complete dataset. They are interested in examining the relationship between pesticide exposures and skin cancer. Dr. Wexford was planning to conduct a study on this topic.



  • What is the problem or issue?

    It is always important to get a clear statement of the problem. In this case, the issue is whether to share information with the other research team.


  • What is the relevant information?

    Many bad decisions are made as a result of poor information. To know what to do, Dr. Wexford needs to have more information concerning such matters as university or funding agency or journal policies that may apply to this situation, the team’s intellectual property interests, the possibility of negotiating some kind of agreement with the other team, whether the other team also has some information it is willing to share, the impact of the potential publications, etc.


  • What are the different options?

    People may fail to see different options due to a limited imagination, bias, ignorance, or fear. In this case, there may be other choices besides ‘share’ or ‘don’t share,’ such as ‘negotiate an agreement’ or ‘offer to collaborate with the researchers.’


  • How do ethical codes or policies as well as legal rules apply to these different options?

    The university or funding agency may have policies on data management that apply to this case. Broader ethical rules, such as openness and respect for credit and intellectual property, may also apply to this case. Laws relating to intellectual property may be relevant.


  • Are there any people who can offer ethical advice?

    It may be useful to seek advice from a colleague, a senior researcher, your department chair, an ethics or compliance officer, or anyone else you can trust. In the case, Dr. Wexford might want to talk to her supervisor and research team before making a decision.


After considering these questions, a person facing an ethical dilemma may decide to ask more questions, gather more information, explore different options, or consider other ethical rules. However, at some point he or she will have to make a decision and then take action. Ideally, a person who makes a decision in an ethical dilemma should be able to justify his or her decision to himself or herself, as well as colleagues, administrators, and other people who might be affected by the decision. He or she should be able to articulate reasons for his or her conduct and should consider the following questions in order to explain how he or she arrived at his or her decision: .

  • Which choice will probably have the best overall consequences for science and society?

  • Which choice could stand up to further publicity and scrutiny?

  • Which choice could you not live with?

  • Think of the wisest person you know. What would he or she do in this situation?

  • Which choice would be the most just, fair, or responsible?

After considering all of these questions, one still might find it difficult to decide what to do. If this is the case, then it may be appropriate to consider others ways of making the decision, such as going with a gut feeling or intuition, seeking guidance through prayer or meditation, or even flipping a coin. Endorsing these methods in this context need not imply that ethical decisions are irrational, however. The main point is that human reasoning plays a pivotal role in ethical decision-making but there are limits to its ability to solve all ethical dilemmas in a finite amount of time.

by David B. Resnik, J.D., Ph.D.


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    Human Research Ethics Committees review all research proposals involving human participants to ensure that they are ethically acceptable.


    By |2019-09-15T18:00:48+00:00March 15th, 2016|Insight about Ethics|0 Comments

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