The building of a responsible research community: the role of ethics.

Author:Lategan, Laetus O.K.

General Comments

The creation of new knowledge and the inventions of new technologies are as old as humankind itself. The beginning of organised higher education in the form of universities continued with this search to discover, understand and apply new knowledge and technologies. The classical trivium and quadrivium contributed to the need to understand the ontology of our world. Closely linked with the research processes of creating new knowledge and the innovation of technologies, is the common belief that science is inherently good since it is based on truth (providing evidence on things as they are), care (changing society for the good), innovation (discovery of new possibilities) and development (improvement of the health and wealth of society). These foundational perspectives contributed to the common belief that a scientific community is a community working with integrity (see Lategan, 2010 on a discussion of "good" research). The editorial of Research Global (February 2011) correctly remarked:

It is essential to ensure that individuals who conduct, teach and train in the research environment understand how their actions and responsibilities transfer to greater society. Johnson (2009, p. 18) follows suit with his comments. He said that research ethics is part of one's career. Maintaining the highest ethical standards is therefore a given. His advice is simply: "The research you carry out must be honest, accurate and ethical."

A number of incidents in the lecture rooms and laboratories and a number of new scientific developments resulted in the mistrust of the scientific communities' work. Recent international examples include the withdrawal of major research funding due to the way in which the budget was expensed (Myklebust, 2011), the employment of scientific techniques to justify the interrogation of war victims (Iacopino, Allen, & Keller, 2011), and practices in the classrooms and laboratories. In a book scheduled for publication in December 2011, Braxton, Proper, and Bayer investigated almost 800 cases of behavioural norms for graduate teaching and mentoring. Concerns that were outlined are disrespect for students' efforts, misappropriation of student's work, harassment of students, suppression of whistle-blowing and faculty-directed research malfeasance. (Medina, 2011)

The complexity of challenges faced by scientific communities is well documented by Schrag (1999) via a number of case studies. In these four-volume case study books, themes such as plagiarism, working relations between professors and graduate students, laboratory management of research, mentor responsibilities, integrity in research, research on human subjects, and policy issues are outlined. They all have implications for the ethical practice of research.

These and similar examples resulted in a renewed interest in the ethics and integrity of scientific communities. Recent examples include the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007), the European Science Foundation's European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2010), Singapore Statement on Research Integrity (2010), and the Expert Panel on Research Integrity in Canada (2010).

These concerns are challenged from another angle. Pattyn and Van Overwalle (2006) express concern with the way in which universities are now developing. It appears as if money has become a driving force for scientific activities. Although research is needed to support a knowledge economy, research cannot go forth without a sound ethical basis.

Dillemans (2006) is clear that ethics should not be an add-on to the research assignment. He observes that, from a European perspective, ethics has always been part of the scientific endeavour, either through its commitment to address societal problems or its relation to the values of humanity and solidarity. From a practitioner's perspective, Human-Vogel and Coetzee (2011) argue that although ethics in science should never be waived, review committees can be biased regarding the basis of employing, for example, values associated with clinical experiments to evaluate research in the humanities.

Baker (2010) puts a challenge before the public: He calls for the reinstatement of public trust in the integrity and ethical rigour of researchers. This is only possible if researchers' behaviour is beyond doubt.

The ensuing question is, how can a scientific community be responsible in the practice of research? More specifically, what role has ethics to play in upholding the responsibility of the scientific community?

Problem and Methodology

The study and application of research ethics are not new to the scientific community. This is evident from the large number of ethical codes and best practices that exist around the world. The latest one is the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity (2010), in which good scientific practices are described as those based on sound ethical research methods. However, as research is increasingly driven by a human rights culture (based on the dictum "do no harm"), economic prospects (profit margins, the contribution to the knowledge economy, and transfer and innovation activities) and business decisions (patenting, commercialisation, and human capacity development), renewed attention is placed on research ethics to regulate the research process. In one of its tracks, the recent conference of the Australasian Research Management Society (September 2011) looked into the challenges of research governance and the application of ethical practices to scientific labour. This track reminded people that research ethics covers more issues than who owns publications (issues of copyright, plagiarism, and intellectual ownership), noting that data should be respected (falsification and fabrication of data), secured (to whom is information available), and contextualised, (analysis and interpretation of data), and highlighting the value of ethical codes (meeting minimum standards and practices) and the link to scholarship (part of academic practice).

Following from literature and policy review, debates and applications, it is evident that the challenge is not limited to a conceptual understanding of ethics only. In a post-modern society the question is, whose ethical perspectives should prevail? (This debate should be coupled with the debate on paradigmatic influences on ethical choices. Strauss (2009) and Rossouw (2005) rightfully note that the choice of paradigm is the springboard for the ensuing arguments. To understand researchers' logic and way of reasoning, one should comprehend the paradigm from which he or she is working.)

Another challenge is the concern that, although an enabling ethical climate can be created, it is no guarantee that researchers will be "ethical" or behave according to ethical expectations. Hence the question remains if one can teach or train researchers to be ethical. Will researchers' personal value systems secure sound ethical behaviour? The answer remains debateable. If one observes what is happening around the world in research laboratories and lecture rooms, it appears as if ethical problems are multiplying. (One possible consideration could be general awareness of the need for ethical behaviour, regulation, compliance, whistle blowing, and ethical hotlines drawing the public's attention to ethical challenges.) A third challenge is that researchers (especially in the natural sciences) often regard ethical review as removed from the research process. Once the approval is done, sound ethical practices typically are not applied through-out the research process. This behaviour does not recognise that ethical principles should still be applied during...

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