4 Ethics in research

So far, you have learnt how to ask a RQ, and identify different ways of obtaining data.

In this chapter, you will study how to conduct a study ethically. You will learn to:

  • describe and list areas of academic integrity.
  • list common ethical issues to be considered in study design.

4.1 Ethical guidelines

Studies must be designed to be ethical, and must meet ethical guidelines. Every Australian university (and probably every univeristy in the world) is committed to promoting and enforcing responsible research practices (RRPs), for people, animals and the environment.

Studies need to be ethical to minimise risk of harm to the environment and to participants, and to preserve the well-being, dignity, rights and safety of participants (including animals!).

Most research studies require a massive ethics approval process, which must be approved by an ethics committee. This process is necessary for any research conducted at all Australian universities and research organisations (such as Queensland Health).

There is insufficient space to cover all ethical issues in detail, but some are obvious and many ethical issues are common-sense.

Example 4.1 (Ethics) Some people think that ethics applies only to studies involving people and/or animals. However, this is not true: ethics is important in all types of research. For example:

  • An evaluation of ethics in engineering109 found that 238 engineering articles published between 1945 and 2015 were retracted; the most common reason for retraction was unethical research practice.

  • A study of 807 researchers in ecology110 found very high rates of Questionable Research Practices (QRPs) by researchers (such as deciding on hypotheses after results are known), often above 50% for some types of QRPs; these results were similar to the rates of QRPs in psychology.

  • François-Xavier Coudert111 documents retractions in the chemical sciences in 2017 and 2018, a total of 331 articles. The reasons for the retractions include unethical practices such as falsification of data and plagiarism.

A study112 found that those who study ethics (called ethicists) were more likely to steal library books than other philosophers.

4.2 Common ethical issues

Common ethical issues (most of which are evaluated by Ethics Committees) include:

  • Physical risks: Physical harm or discomfort should be avoided or minimised.
  • Psychological risks: Psychological harm or discomfort should be avoided or minimised.
  • Social risks: Social harm or discomfort should be avoided or minimised.
  • Environmental risks: Environmental impacts and damage should be avoided or minimised.
  • Economic risks: Financial loss to participants should be avoided. Reimbursements of reasonable costs for participating may need to be considered.
  • Incentives to participate: If participants are offered incentives to participate (above reimbursement of costs), these should be acknowledged as it may (perhaps unconsciously) cause participants to influence the results.
  • Legal risks: Participants should not be put in the position of breaking any laws.
  • Acknowledgement: All those who contributed should be acknowledged. This includes those who make figures or have taken photographs, or have helped with data collection.
  • Confidentiality: Data should be kept confidential.
  • Storage of data: Data should be stored securely.
  • Consent: Participants should consent to being in the studyn(if appropriate), and hence should be told what the study involves. Participants should also be able to withdraw from the study without penalty.
  • Plagiarism: The work of others should be appropriately acknowledged (Sect. 38.16).
  • Analysis: The analysis must be approached ethically, and using the appropriate methods.

Example 4.2 (Ethics) In the Tuskegee syphilis experiment113 (conducted between 1932 and 1972), effective treatments were witheld from men with syphilis. The men's wives and children often were affected.

The men were lied to about the treatment they were given, and were prevented from seeking treatment elsewhere. This was a highly unethical study, and could never be conducted now.

In 1986, the American space shuttle Challenger exploded just after launch, killing all seven astronauts on board.

A review of the disaster114 found that part of the cause was that the engineers dismissed some data that they should have used. This was unethical scientific practice.

4.3 Academic integrity

Academic integrity refers to conducting research ethically, honestly and responsibly.

The opposite of academic integrity is academic misconduct. You are strongly encouraged to read your university's information about academic integrity and academic misconduct, including the information about the consequences of academic misconduct.

In the context of research design, academic integrity covers areas such as

4.3.1 Collusion

Collusion occurs when people work together to produce a work, but only one gets the credit for it.

In a research context, collusion means failing to acknowledge the contributions and ideas of others.

4.3.2 Fraud

In the context of research, fraud refers to the intent to deceive. This may happen by falsifying data, inventing data, forgery, fabricating experiemnts of information.

Example 4.3 (Fraud) Microbiologist Keka Sarkar had papers retracted due to fraud, including self-plagiarism and reusing figures that were claimed to be from different studies:

Two figures in the paper in Biotechnology Letters had been taken from [another paper of Sarkar's in] J Nanobiotech [...] No acknowledgement was given that these figures were identical. In addition, the two figures illustrated results from apparently different experiments [...] Figure 2a in the Biotechnology Letters paper was also used without modification in another publication of this group...

--- Saptarshi Chatterjee and Keka Sarkar115, p. 1527

4.3.3 Reproducible research

One way to ensure that the results of research are reliable and trustworthy is to ensure that research is reproducible: that someone else can repeat the study (including the analysis):

Reproducibility involves methods to ensure that independent scientists can reproduce published results by using the same procedures and data as the original investigators. It also requires that the primary investigators share their data and methodological details. These include, at a minimum, the original protocol, the dataset used for the analysis, and the computer code used to produce the results.

--- Christine Laine et al.116, p. 452

The means for ensuring that all components of research are reproducible are discipline dependent, are beyond the scope of this book. However, realising the importance of reproducibility is important; for example, it emphasises the importance of describing the protocol. Different journals also have different expectations regarding reproducibility.

Many researchers strongly advise against using point-and-click interfaces (such as found in Excel) to analysis since the results are not reproducible:

... it is increasingly clear that traditional means of data management, such as storing and manipulating data using spreadsheets, are no longer adequate [...], and new approaches are required for analyzing data.

--- Keith P. Lewis, Eric Vander Wal, and David A. Fifield117, p. 172

The importance of reproducibility in the analysis phase is crucial:

There are serious medical consequences to errors attributable to the effects of spreadsheet programs and software operated through a graphical user interface... Fundamentally, the issue is one of reproducibility. The opacity of graphical user interface–based statistical analysis and the importance of research transparency and reproducibility have been high-lighted by scientific scandals that could have been avoided through a reproducible research paradigm...

--- Simons and Holmes118, p. 471

Rather than spreadsheets, which have significant problems when used for analysis, using analysis tools which enable reproducible research (for example, by using scripts all actions are documented), such as R119 (on which jamovi is based), are recommended:

We have all had the experience of having performed a laborious calculation in a spreadsheet program only to later be required to redo the analysis because of the availability of additional data, the discovery of an error, or because the analysis is part of a recurring report (e.g., monthly quality indicators). At that point we may have to return and begin the calculation all over, except we may not even remember what we did, or we may inadvertently perform the analysis in a slightly different way each time.

--- Simons and Holmes120, p. 471

Example 4.4 (Unethical reporting and practice) A 'Letter to the Editor' of paramedicine journal121 questioned an article122 in which researchers claimed to have randomly allocated participants into two groups.

The Letter noted that the initial average weights of the participants in each group were significantly different. The article states:

It is extraordinarily unlikely that any variable would be that different between two groups if allocation was truly random. Even it was truly random, the stated method of "the samples were randomly divided into two groups"... does not describe the "method used to generate the random allocation sequence" [...] details specified by Consolidated Standards of Reporting Trials (CONSORT)...

--- George, Brown, and Allison123

4.4 Summary

Making studies ethical is not negotiable. Any formal study must obtain ethical approval. Ethics covers issues such as, but not restricted to:

  • physical risks;
  • psychological risks;
  • legal risks;
  • confidentiality;
  • consent;
  • data storage; and
  • plagiarism.

4.5 Quick review questions

Indicate whether the following are true or false.

  1. Ethical considerations apply in any type of study.
  2. Ethical considerations only refer to the interactions of the researchers with participants in the study.
  3. Ethical considerations only apply when people are involved in the study.
  4. Ethical considerations only apply when people or animals are involved in the study.
  5. Ethical considerations can extend to storage of data and plagiarism.
  6. Ethics only apply to the design of the study.
  7. Ethics apply even to the analysis of the data.
  8. Ethical clearance is provided by (for example) the University Ethics Office.


4.6 Exercises

Exercise 4.1 Consider this (real) conundrum facing researchers:124

A research team has an extraordinarily successful long-term study of a population of bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) on Ram Mountain [...]

The population contains marked individuals for which the research team has incredibly detailed data on phenotype, pedigree, and life-history. Many graduate students, post-doctoral fellows, and senior scientists have studied this population, and this research has lead to numerous important publications.

Recently, however, a cougar (Puma concolor) that has learned to specialize on these sheep is slowly but surely eating all of them. This is a study of a natural population, which includes predation, but this cougar is drastically reducing the sample size of the study.

Since it is legal to hunt cougars in the region where this study is taking place, one option is to try to kill the predator; however, even if a cougar were successfully hunted, this would not ensure that it was the correct one.

--- Crozier and Schulte-Hostedde125

What action would you recommend? Explain your reasoning, including from an ethics point-of-view.

Exercise 4.2 Suppose a deadly disease breaks out. Is it ethical to begin the use of a new drug to treat those affected, even though the drug is still experimental and the potentially harmful side effects are unknown? Discuss your point-of-view.

Exercise 4.3 Is it ethical to lie to the subjects in a study? Deception is common in some disciplines, and may be approved by ethics committees under certain circumstances (such as the potential benefits of the study, and whether the deception is likely to cause physical or psychological discomfort to the participants).

Do you think it is ethical to tell participants that they are taking an active medication, when it is actually ineffective (a 'placebo')?126 Discuss the advantages and disadvantages, including what we can learn from such a study that may be beneficial.