Research Ethics | Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy

Research Ethics

Ethics in Research

Standards of research ethics are required by all research institutions and are well understood by experienced researchers. Novice investigators must take care to understand them, to ensure that they will operate within the bounds of these standards. The booklet On Being A Scientist: Responsible Conduct In Research gives a full spectrum of coverage to the subject of research ethics. Its appendix includes a number of hypothetical scenarios to help identify particular considerations.

General Standards

General standards of research ethics involve procedures, practices, and expectations for all researchers in all research projects. Students are responsible for knowing and adhering to general standards of ethics in research:

  • Often research is proprietary with a degree of ownership of knowledge, or a need to protect confidentiality of the information. This may include processes or products developed for commercial use where confidentiality is necessary for economic survival of the companies. It also includes research that involves national defense or economic security; the extraordinary trust placed in students allowed to work in these research areas must be repaid with responsible use of knowledge and utmost regard for confidentiality.
  • Often research is controversial. Diametrically opposing and mutually exclusive perspectives on controversial issues may be held by equally intelligent and caring individuals. Researchers are confronted throughout their lives with situations where there are no clear right or wrong answers, but understand that tools for addressing these issues are available through law, ethics, professional associations, and personal reflection.
  • The use of human tissue, genetic material, animal research, stem cell research, products and procedures that damage the environment or pose health risks, and technologies such as nuclear power that have risks as well as benefits may cause ethical dilemmas or pose particularly challenging situations for researchers. Becoming knowledgeable about ethical and social issues relevant to such research, and of the salient and intrinsic aspects of controversies and varying opinions regarding them will enable students to develop wisdom on such issues as they gain experience and perspective.
  • Integrity of conducting and reporting the investigation. To be meaningful and useful to other researchers, the work and results are completely factual: no parts, not even the very smallest aspects of the project, are fabricated. Assumptions are clearly identified as such.
  • The work of each contributor and source is credited to that specific contributor and source. Accurate and complete citation of others’ research work shows respect for the contributions of others, and fosters effective interactions between research. Failure to credit the work of others is plagiarism, and violates both laws and ethical practices.

Specific Standards

For research on certain types of projects there may be additional standards. Procedures for working on particular kinds of research subjects are very specific. For example, international research ethics standards have been established for the protection of human and animal subjects. If SIR investigations involve human subjects, a number of ethical and regulatory considerations must be addressed. The Human and Animal Subjects Review Committee (HASRC) reviews all IMSA investigations of human and animal subjects to help ensure that ethical and regulatory considerations are not overlooked.

Federal regulations govern human subjects in research, and compliance with these regulations is both a legal and ethical obligation. With few exceptions, research subjects have the right of informed consent: to know the purpose of the research, what the process entails, potential risks and benefits, and how the information will be used. Information must be in a language and manner participants understand. Research procedures, presentation, and publication of results must safeguard the identity of subjects, and avoid the disclosure of personal, embarrassing, or damaging information about the subjects. Participants must be informed of potential risks to their welfare, including health hazards, stress, and discomfort. Participation must be voluntary. Subjects may not be required to waive rights or benefits to which they are entitled, or release researchers from liability for negligence. Special concern is required when research involves the manipulation of behavior, or when minor children or others with limited decisional capacity are involved. As with all research, there may be unanticipated situations or unexpected outcomes, responsibility for the consequences must be accepted by the researcher.

Federal guidelines for research involving vertebrate animals include condition for housing and feeding animals, veterinary care to prevent and alleviate pain and disease, qualified supervision to monitor quality of the environment, and regular examination of professional literature to ascertain that proposed treatments and procedures are the most appropriate, justifiable, and humane. Research involving potential risk to persons or property requires extreme care in procedures, and safeguards for the use of this information. For example, conducting medical research or working with toxic material requires vigilance to prevent prevention of contamination and ensure proper disposal of medical or chemical wastes. Discretion is essential in working with and reporting on chemical or biological hazards that could be used against humans or the environment.