The Foundational Statements for Ethical Research Practice 2019-06-17T09:48:28+00:00

The Foundational Statements for Ethical Research Practice

The following statements form the foundational assumptions of the PRO-RES Framework. Each statement has been carefully considered and drawn from the range of codes and guidelines available internationally.

The first set of statements relates to the core ‘values’ to be found in most ethics codes or guidelines and connects them with similar and overlapping ‘virtues’.

STATEMENT 1:

VALUES and VIRTUES: Throughout most existing codes and guidelines there appears a commonly held understanding that the virtuous researcher/scientist holds to certain values. These include a concern to be honest in all the work they do, to cooperate with other scientists in a supportive manner and to show respect for the dignity and diversity of their subjects. They should demonstrate qualities of care, kindness and compassion and take responsibility for all their actions. That includes a responsibility to think through what the consequences of their work might be for society, communities, individuals and even specific groups. At the same time as allowing researchers a reasonable degree of freedom to explore as their discipline dictates, research subjects, participants or respondents and others affected by the research must equally be allowed the freedom not to be harmed by research activities. The freedom to conduct scientific research must be matched by enabling those affected by the research the freedom not to be obliged to be party to it. Nonetheless, engaging in certain research acts and situations requires considerable courage on the part of researchers, this too is considered a virtue of responsible scientific practice. There may sometimes also be an obligation to carry out research in order to determine whether the benefits of an innovation exceed the risks or whether claims of an emerging risk are well-founded. These values and virtues need to be supported by the cultures and structures of the institutions in which the researchers work.

Many values exist in tension or even in direct conflict with each other. Thus ‘honesty’ and/or ‘transparency’ could offer a challenge to recognition of the ‘dignity and diversity’ of participants. Equally one person’s freedom to act might curtail another’s freedom to act differently. There is no intention in the above values/vices statement to put an inappropriate block, say, on research conducted in public places where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. Similarly, individuals seeking the freedom to opt out from administrative datasets should be reminded of their accountability to civil society; that is, those receiving some benefit from their membership in a society should not expect to opt out of being accountable for what they do with that benefit.

A somewhat formalised distinction between ‘research ethics’ and ‘research integrity’ has taken hold in many spheres. Our view is that ‘research ethics’ stands as the umbrella term for ‘ethical practices in research’ such that ‘research integrity’ ought to be subsumed within that. We formulated a broader notion for a ‘lack of integrity’ which is in direct opposition to the values and virtues that we see as fairly established – these are termed research ‘vices’. These too need to be clarified as follows:

STATEMENT 2:

VICES: The primary concerns of poor research integrity are framed as the corollary of these virtues. These include incompetence, indolence, deceit, the misrepresentation of facts and findings, fraudulent use of data, plagiarism and other forms of corrupt practices – such as harassment, bullying and/or nepotism. Stigmatising or prejudicial language, distortions, or data-gathering biases such as racism/ethnocentrism and sexism are reproved. So too are practices intended to entrench social exclusion or marginalise specific social categories – such as those with a disability or the aged or infirm or ethnic groups. The failure to credit or acknowledge the value of all contributions to a research activity is also to be considered a vice.

Ethical ‘principles’ must be built upon the aforementioned values and virtues and oppose the vices that can occur in research practice. In the many codes and guidelines the statement of a set of principles to guide ethical research practice is commonplace. But few codes or guidelines declare the same set of principles, necessarily disclose the underlying values, define terms in exactly the same way or clarify the practices that are to be proscribed given the established principles. It is this range and variety of approaches that can be confusing. We have incorporated here as many of the proposed principles as possible and linked them to the aforementioned statements of values, virtues and vices. Dilemmas of ethics and integrity permeate research practice. Compromises frequently have to be made and choices of the ‘lesser evil’ sometimes required. The problem of a principlist approach is its implied purity of action – for example that, in the avoidance of maleficence, no harm should be done. Since no one can fully anticipate what might harm others, the best one can hope for is to strive to minimise the potential for harm. Thus the principles we advocate entail the norms to be adopted in order that the promoted values and virtues are maintained.

STATEMENT 3:

PRINCIPLES: In combining the values and virtues to be sought and the vices to be avoided, most codes and guidelines advocate the applications of certain principles. In order to bear responsibility scientists must participate in open and democratic processes and be accountable for their actions. They need to operate in a collaborative and collegial manner, apply their data collection, findings and research outcomes proportionately, justly and fairly. The larger community – both public and professional – should benefit from and not be harmed by their activities. The involvement of the subjects of research should, as far as possible, be on a voluntary basis – none should be forced to participate nor bear the consequences of a researcher’s actions without their informed agreement – though specific principles are necessary to cover those observed in public settings and covert observations of behaviour or phenomena that could not be studied in any other way and that is necessary for societal benefit. Both researchers and researched need to be accorded a degree of autonomy or independence – both in terms of how the ongoing research is conducted and whether they choose to continue to participate. Reliable research will depend upon a just and equitable selection and treatment of subjects, or participants, or respondents. The diversity of research subjects/participants must be accounted for and their participation in or departure from a research study facilitated.

‘Standards’ are statements about the quality of performance that should be expected from some activity. These statements may prescribe the technical details of the activity and the process required for the outcome to be recognized as acceptable. Although standards need not always have an explicit legal force, they may also acquire a moral force, such that individuals and organizations are expected to comply with them in order to be treated as legitimate for relevant social and economic purposes. Clearly such statements are based on the listed values and virtues, must embody the principles outlined and clearly explain how the summarised vices can be addressed.

STATEMENT 4:

STANDARDS: The standards to ensure that research is conducted ethically and with integrity are contained within sets of rules for good governance. These will include standard operating procedures for the evaluation of projects, proposals and the system of ethics oversight – the form and content of research ethics review committees or any other review, monitoring or ethics approval process. Equally important are the regulated means for safeguarding scientists and researchers, their subjects, their findings and their intellectual property. Sanctions must be available for those researchers that fail to fulfil their obligations without good reason. Results must be auditable and provision made for the honest and constructive critique of malpractice – such as whistleblowing. Standards for due process must include means for resolving conflicts of interest, for mediation and for the redress of grievance.

Anyone interested in looking further into the rationale that led to these statements can find some background to the full discussion here: