The ethics of using unethical research

May 13, 2014 by Matthew J. Brown

(Part II of Fergal’s series on citing Nazi and other unethical research. Continued from Part I.) 

Initially I thought that the ethical question of whether it is acceptable to cite or use Nazi research data would be enough. However as I researched this topic and read more about the ethics of using data from previous unethical research, I discovered that there was a more pertinent and relevant question. What is ethical behaviour, or more importantly what constitutes an ethical violation in human experimentation?

The ethic codes are limited to the behaviour of the researchers conducting human experimentation., and do not address citing or using research which has been improperly obtained by others. So ethical codes do not help us.

The Nazi research data ceased to be the main topic, and now became a framework to hang the debate on. The line of inquiry was generalised, moving from an interesting debate on a particular incident in history, to an ethical debate on the values, or lack of values, inherent in research data. Now it was a more meaningful and contemporary query.

Ethics in research, particularly has received a lot of attention in the last forty years or so. In that time a number of journals have been created which are solely dedicated to the question of ethics in science, such as the Journal of Health Ethics, and the Journal of Medical Ethics. Other medical journals including JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) and the Lancet had also features robust debate on medical ethics. These journals became the battle ground of the debate. 

Those against publication base their argument on either moral grounds, or that the research is unreliable. Their demands range from unethical data being expunged from textbooks and journals where possible on one side, to allowing citing only to educate the readers about ethical issues. While those for publication argue to allow publication under limited conditions, where publication would benefit the greater good with accompanying comments on the ethical concerns.

However neither camp seriously address the elephant in the room. There is no agreement on a standard for defining ethics. With the practice of researchers rejecting ethical codes, interpreting the codes to their benefit, the issue of obtaining genuine informed consent, and generally rationalising why their research does not contain ethical violations, there is no universal accepted standard for ethics. So, while the groups debate whether to cite unethical behaviour, there is no agreement of what is unethical behaviour. Within the grey zone between behaviours which are obviously ethical, and those which are obviously unethical, ethical values are based on the values and motivations of the individuals concerned.

Researchers need to address this serious weakness in the ethical regime.