Research; How to ensure it is ethical and why society has a right to know about its outcomes

Published On: 17 June 2021|

Most universities have a whistleblowing policy but when we see what we consider to be unethical behavior, is it a duty or an obligation to blow a whistle on it? That is a difficult question to explore, especially when training early-career researchers, said Professor Stephanie Burton (below right).


Burton is a biochemistry professor at the University of Pretoria (UP), a professor at UP’s Future Africa campus; UP’s immediate past Vice-Principal for Research and Postgraduate Education, and a Research Fellow for Universities South Africa (USAf).  

This question was one of the ideas she explored in her presentation, “Research Ethics and Integrity – Training and Communication during pandemic times”, at USAf’s 6th Biennial Research and Innovation Dialogue of the Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG), held virtually on June 11.

She said thinking about research ethics and integrity needs to begin with asking why scientists do research. And the response is that it is to generate new knowledge, answer questions and solve problems.  


Research needs to contribute to a better future and to facilitate innovation. While everyone has this ambition to change the world, “our world has changed very dramatically for us in the last couple of years,’’ she said.


The question is: how do scientists respond to those changes with respect to research integrity? “It is how we conduct our research that matters,” she said.


Quoting the London-based Science Council’s definition, she said: “Science is the pursuit and application of knowledge and understanding of the natural and social world following a systematic methodology based on evidence”. Essentially this explains that there is a system of doing science – which is about developing knowledge – and it is based on evidence.


Science is a public good. It needs to be protected legally in terms of intellectual property. But its research outcomes must not be hidden; society has an intrinsic rightto access that knowledge. And that relates to research integrity, which is about how we do the research, what we do with the data, how we use other people’s data, and then how we know what is ethical.


With that right to knowledge comes the ethics of communicating that science – how we publish, where we publish, who is paying, and who has access to that information. “I frequently find new researchers are puzzled by these issues and they feel that there actually isn’t enough information available to them,” she said.


The ins and outs of ethical research


How do we know if we are conducting our research ethically? The answer to this, she said, has moral, legal, and ethical layers that relate to beliefs, rights, responsibilities and obligations – to some extent all personal issues. There are codes of ethics and researchers have an obligation to adhere to this code which is usually spelt out. They also have an obligation to consider reputational risk. This can be at an individual level or at an institutional level.


Early-career researchers often ask if there is a difference between morals and ethics. One interpretation, said Professor Burton, is that we all have our own set of moral principles which, philosophers say, are shaped by religion, culture, family, experience and tradition. People have these morals long before they become scholars. It is what they grow up with and what exists in their community and personal situations.  What is important about morals, said Burton, is moral autonomy, “which is being able to make your own ethical decisions based on your own experience and your own background”.


Researchers needs to manage their own ethical responsibilities rather than deferring them to others. “It is very easy as a researcher to say, ‘Oh, I have ethics approval, so it is all fine and it is the committee’s responsibility’. But it is not.  Ethical responsibilities lie with ourselves”, said Professor Burton.


She said researchers need to set themselves standards which they consider to be reliable and believable, and this is done through the ethics approvals processes, which is a given in every institution. This goes together with the thorny issue of compliance monitoring.  “There isn’t a DVC responsible for research ethics in this meeting, or I think in the world, who doesn’t ask themselves, ‘how can we be sure through compliance monitoring that our ethics systems are robust?’” said Professor Burton.


Yet, even if the ethics approvals and the management processes are never going to be completely bullet-proof, the code of ethics is an important anchor point for the kind of ethics approvals and ethics management needed.


She went on to suggest that discussions about what is ethical, and what is the right thing in terms of research, need to start at undergraduate study modules. Some principles of ethical conduct in terms of general behaviour include:


  • to pursue and present truth as the researcher sees it;
  • to take responsibility for how the research is conducted;
  • to exercise critical self-discipline and judgement in decisions regarding the use, expansion and dissemination of knowledge; and
  • to recognise and respect the authority of professional codes in specific disciplines.


Ethical conduct in terms of reporting includes subscribing to the principles of honesty, completeness, intelligibility, clarity, accountability, and exposure to public testing.


Academic misconduct includes:


  • fraudulent reporting and manipulation of factual information;
  • plagiarism;
  • unauthorised use of confidential research results;
  • unacceptable acquisition, allocation and abuse of funds allocated for research purposes; and
  • violation of copyright or any other form of intellectual property right.


We need to communicate science clearly


A proponent of clear and effective science communication, Professor Burton said this needs facts which are understandable and accurate, and evidence-based information which is believable. She said science engagement involves conversations. Scientists have opinions as well as responsibility and people are interested in those opinions.


Scientists need to report what knowledge they have produced and the learning they have achieved. This must be an active process. “We must share that research as widely as we can. Those results need to be available for benefit to society. In fact, if we do not do that, there is not much point in conducting the research at all,” she said.


If the broader community does not see the benefits, then they are quite right to be asking about the value and the impact of our research, she said.


She said she adheres to what one of the earliest Roman philosophers, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus c. 35 – c. 100, said:  “We should not write so that it is possible for the reader to understand us, but so that it is impossible for him to misunderstand us.”


“We need to be very clear about what we report,” she said.


New approaches and their ethics


The trend is now towards open access publishing and publication online. Professor Burton said she is fully behind open access publishing. But it needs to include the correct checks and balances to ensure that it is still of high quality. Another trend that has surfaced, particularly during the pandemic, is that literally millions of papers have been published, stating: “as it is published online, this has not yet been peer reviewed”. Burton believes the ethicality of this needs to be debated further.


The increase in the volumes of available research data needs to be managed, as publicly funded research is required to be available and accessible to the public. Most institutions have policies about how to do this. “But we need a more coherent global system.”


She said new technologies are posing new questions: will artificial intelligence (AI) help us detect fraudulent data, plagiarism and misconduct? Burton said she did not have all the answers, but she thinks scientists are putting more trust into AI. Yet it does throw up the debate on whether researchers canethically allow artificial intelligences to do research, for example, searching academic literature based on algorithms. And should we be allowing “learner researchers” to use automation, and so, rely on artificial intelligence to help them to find information? If yes, “what are our students learning, are they learning, or are they simply believing and falling into the traps of the Internet era?” she asked.


The role of researchers in the future


She said even though the world was not prepared for the coronavirus pandemic, “we can be prepared for the future and for future epidemics by building in trust and building in where people can find information and understand it.”


She said the question we need to be asking is: “are we being listened to, as scientists, and where is the voice of the ethical scholarly community?” The public does not need misinformation. To counteract this, researchers need to engage with the public.


As researchers, as leaders, our role is one of enabling. We need to make sure that our science communities can identify and appreciate high quality ethical practices, and we need to make sure that our colleagues, our partners and our stakeholders can evaluate for themselves the integrity of our research,” she said.


Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.