Ethics in Scientific Research: An Examination of Ethical Principles and Emerging Topics

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Scientific research ethics vary by discipline and by country, and this analysis sought to understand those variations. The goal of this project was to provide researchers, government officials, and others who create, modify, and enforce ethics in scientific research around the world with an understanding of how ethics are created, monitored, and enforced across scientific disciplines and across international borders. The authors reviewed literature from across scientific disciplines and conducted interviews with experts in the United States, Europe, and China. The research had two motivations: (1) to inform researchers and sponsors who engage in research in emerging scientific disciplines and who may face new ethical challenges, and (2) to inform research sponsors — including government officials — who wish to encourage ethical research without unintentionally encouraging researchers to pursue their research in other jurisdictions.

This analysis led to an understanding of which ethics are common across disciplines, how these ethics might vary geographically, and how emerging topics are shaping future ethics. The authors focused on the ethics of scientific research and how the research is conducted, rather than on how the research is applied. This distinction excluded from this research an analysis of so-called “dual-use” applications for military purposes.

This research found ten ethical principles common across scientific disciplines

  • They are duty to society; beneficence; conflict of interest; informed consent; integrity; nondiscrimination; nonexploitation; privacy and confidentiality; professional competence; and professional discipline.
  • Each ethical principle applies to the scientific inquiry, the conduct and behaviors of researchers, or the ethical treatment of research participants.
  • Only one ethical principle — duty to society — applies to the scientific inquiry by asking whether the research benefits society.
  • Variations in ethical principles across disciplines are usually due to whether the discipline includes human or animal subjects.
  • Variations in ethical principles across countries are usually due to local laws, oversight, and enforcement; cultural norms; and whether research is conducted in the researchers’ host country or a foreign country.

Ethics are created, change, and evolve due to the following factors:

  • significant historic events that create a reckoning
  • ethical lapses that lead researchers to create new safeguards
  • scientific advancements that lead to new fields of research
  • changes in cultural values and behavioral norms that evolve over time.

Mechanisms to monitor and enforce research vary in effectiveness and by country

  • Professional societies and peer-reviewed journals offer consistent ethical standards across national borders, though they lack the enforcement strength of nation-states.

  • Emerging trends — including big data, open science, and citizen science — provide research opportunities while introducing new ethical risks.

  • Professional societies respond to emerging changes with updates to codes of conduct, education and training for researchers, and governance structures for researchers, sponsors, and research subjects.


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