Research ethics is a topic usually brought to public attention when large-scale fraud scandals are revealed – when researchers have falsified data or results, plagiarized others or committed other serious breaches of good research practice.

But research ethics includes much more than research fraud. In addition, it includes the social responsibility of research, both locally and globally. And, as Facebook, probably unwillingly, drew attention to a few weeks ago, research ethics also deals with respect for the individuals being researched on.

Foundation of all research

The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees recently issued a set of General guidelines for research ethics

They are not meant to replace the already existing guidelines for the different academic disciplines, but are meant to be sufficiently general to include all fields of research and all subject areas.

The guidelines are to function as a set of tools for researchers, but are also meant to serve as a gateway to understand the principles, considerations and requirements of ethical research, also for those who are not themselves scientists.

Respect, good consequences, fairness and integrity should be the foundation of all research. This implies that individuals who participate in research, as informants or otherwise, should be treated with respect. Researchers should seek to ensure that their activities produce good consequences.

All research projects should be designed and implemented fairly, meaning that researchers should consider the distribution of benefits and burdens of research. Last, but not least, researchers should comply with recognized norms and to behave responsibly, openly and honestly towards their colleagues and the public.

Internal and external norms

The responsibility for ethical conduct rests not only with the individual researcher, but also with the research institution.

The guidelines can be roughly divided in two categories: Internal and external norms.

The internal norms are mainly directed towards relations between researchers. Integrity implies that the researcher is responsible for the trustworthiness of his or her own research, for adhering to good reference practices and showing each other respect.

The external norms deal with the way research relates to the outside world, to research participants and society as a whole. Consent is the main rule in research on individuals or on information and material that can be linked to individuals. This consent should be informed, explicit, voluntary and documentable. As a general principle, those who are made the subjects of research are entitled to have their personal information treated confidentially. The researcher must prevent any use and communication of information that might inflict damage on individuals who are the subjects of research.

In practice, fairness in research implies that researchers have an independent responsibility to ensure that their research will be of benefit to the participants, relevant groups or society in general, and for preventing it from causing harm. According to the guidelines, institutions and researchers have a responsibility to communicate relevant knowledge to regions that are otherwise excluded for reasons of economic disadvantage. Research should help counteract global injustice and preserve biological diversity.

What are the consequences?

So then, what are the consequences when guidelines are breached? Norwegian journalists can be found guilty of not complying with the Code of ethics of the Norwegian press. But what about researchers?

The General research ethical guidelines are mainly meant to be advisory and an instrument for researchers. Not the least, the guidelines are meant to foster ethical reflection in researchers and the general public alike.

At the same time, failure to comply with several of the guidelines may also in fact mean breaking other laws and rules. The purpose of the Personal Data Act is to protect people from violation of their right to privacy through the processing of personal data. The Health Research Act requires ethical review of all medical and health research on human beings, human material or personal health data. Research misconduct, such as fabrication, falsification and plagiarization, as well as other serious breaches of good research practice are all violations of the Act on ethics and integrity in research.

The guidelines have now been distributed to all Norwegian research institutions and other bodies that finance, regulate or deal with research in other ways. The Norwegian National Research Ethics Committees urge them to try out the guidelines and give feedback. The intention is to collect comments and inputs and revise the guidelines within a year.