The need for ethical considerations in research

Many academic disciplines have strict codes of conduct that must be adhered to. There are also common ethical considerations in research that permeate all disciplines.

Ethics are all about right and wrong. Ethics help us determine what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Basic human values guide ethical principles. Here is a list of some of them: -


When you do research, you should report data and results honestly as well as providing an honest description of the procedures you followed and the methods you used in your research study. You should never fabricate or falsify data, and neither should you misrepresent your data. Never attempt to deceive your colleagues or the public.

Researchers have a duty to be objective so that no bias creeps into their research. You should always be objective as regards: -

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  1. If you lie in court while under oath, you will be committing perjury, and in the UK the maximum penalty is a seven-year prison sentence. You could also be fined if convicted. If your case is more serious and you are charged with perverting the course of justice, the maximum prison sentence is a term of life imprisonment.
  2. Falsifying data means that other researchers cannot replicate your research. This in turn, means that the fabrication will be spotted, and you eventually lose your credibility as a researcher. No more research grants will come your way. In 2017, Japan’s Kobe Steel company admitted to falsifying data, and the value of its shares plummeted.
  3. Deliberate misinterpretation of data will discredit you in the eyes of your colleagues and other academics. If you apply for research grants, you will almost certainly be turned down.
  4. You have to be honest when writing grant applications. Grant writers should not ask for payment only if the grant is awarded. The grant writer should not receive (or handle) funds if a grant applied for is awarded. Grant writers should not apply for any grant on your behalf. You must be listed as the grant applicant in n application for a grant.
  5. In the past the peer review process has been the subject of controversy. Researcher-writers have complained of gender bias, as well as the use of identities which were fictional. Some researchers have managed to review their own papers after creating a new (false) identity. The double-blind peer review is seen as the most effective method of preventing discrimination which is based on the identity of an author.
  6. One way of eliminating bias when making decisions about personnel is the old tried-and-tested method of making a list of each job candidate’s pros and cons. Think about the factors that could make you act in a biased way when making a decision about the suitability of a candidate for a job. Be absolutely honest with yourself.

When we think of ethical considerations in research, probably most people’s minds turn to experiments conducted on animals. Are these ethical? Scientists would argue that because the animals are treated well as regards their care, such research is ethical. The arguments are fairly compelling.

It is better to use animals for testing new drugs, for example, than to test them on people, as the results could be dangerous and very harmful. There are laws in place in the UK which pertain to experiments on animals, and scientists adhere to them.

There are the three Rs to be considered before animal research is undertaken-

  • Replace animals with other alternative techniques or avoid using them altogether.
  • Reduce the number of animals that are experimented on. Modern techniques have substantially reduced the number of animals required to obtain the information researchers seek.
  • Refine the processes used in experiments so that the suffering of animal used in experiments is kept to a minimum.

It is important not to become emotional about experiments on animals, as the information gathered is of great benefit to us medically speaking.

Of course, animal testing is used much less than it used to be because we have developed new ways of conducting experiments to prove or disprove the efficacy of new drugs, for example. Now there is computer modelling, in vitro technology, micro-dosing (used on human subjects), and also human-patient simulators.

Human-patient simulators are essentially mannequins which have technologies in them which make them respond like a person. They are also made to resemble a person. They are used to provide medical students with hands-on experience with no possibility of the ‘patient’ dying because of a wrong diagnosis or the wrong treatment. This is not new, but has been carried out since the 1950s, although the simulators have been much improved since the early days.

In vitro literally means ‘in glass’, and cultures of cells and tissue can now be grown in a test tube or another glass vessel such as a petri dish. Biologists use these to grow bacteria, for example. Most people will have heard of in vitro fertilisation (IVF) treatment which is used to aid human reproduction.

Micro dosing is used for human trials of new drugs. The doses administered to human patients (or guinea pigs), are very low, sub-therapeutic, in fact, that they don’t affect the whole body. However, the doses are high enough to allow scientists to study the responses of cells.

Computer modelling and brain imaging machines, and a whole host of other methods of studying the brain via a computer, are helping scientists to push forward our understanding of how our brains work. Computer modelling of the brain can, at least in theory, contribute to our advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AI). No one yet has come up with a sound understanding of how the brain actually works. If we can figure this out, scientists could, in theory work out how to prevent diseases of the brain such as Alzheimer’s Disease. That would be a real scientific and medical breakthrough which would change the lives of sufferers and their carers.

There are many thorny questions that can trouble health care professionals; for example,

  • A patient and his or her close family members disagree about how to treat the patient.
  • Should people have to wait a long time for treatment because there are long waiting lists? Having to wait for treatment can be permanently damaging (both physically and mentally) to would-be patients.
  • Should scarce resources be spent on the aged, the mentally ill or those that are terminally ill? Sometimes, health care services are withdrawn from patients who need care, because they belong to a low social class or are very poor. Is this ethical? The majority of a population have discriminatory beliefs as regards age, mental illness and culture.
  • In some countries there are few family doctors and primary health care personnel in rural areas and in urban areas people needing health care often dispense with the services of family doctors and instead go to Accident and Emergency wards of over-stretched hospitals.
  • Medical error is another cause for concern. Errors might just affect one patient, such as a person being wrongly diagnosed and subsequently being given totally in appropriate treatment, or the error might affect many patients, such as hospital patients in a hospital that has failed to properly sterilise instruments. Medical errors are not really ethical problems, but they do raise certain ethical questions, such as when or even if, medical errors should be admitted to patients and/or their families.
  • Then comes the question of giving painkilling medication to those that are terminally ill. It could be that the use of such medication might bring about the patient’s untimely death. Sometimes such medication is not given appropriately because of concerns such as these.
  • Another ethical consideration is getting patients or their relatives to sign consent forms before treatment is given. Professional translators or interpreters might be needed to explain what treatment is needed and why it is. Informed consent is a cornerstone of modern health practices.

There are other concerns related to ethical health care, and this is simply an introduction to them.

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