Research ethics

Dual use responsibility is something that researcher in biological research must think about. This means that a researcher is resposible to see that research results are not misused to manufacture e.g. biological weapon. Earlier this spring Frida Kuhlau from University of Uppsala defended her doctor’s thesis Responsible Conduct in Dual Use Research: Towards an Ethic of Deliberation in the Life Sciences on research conduct and dual use responsibility.

Discussions on researcher’s responsibility for his/her research started already during the second World War. It was among other things the creation of nuclear weapons that made the research community aware of the dual use responsibility and security questions. The 9/11 attacts and following anthrax attacks made these discussions acctual again.

Frida Kuhlau makes four points in her studies into dual use responsibility:

  • The researcher has a moral responsibility not to expose others for risk for injury.
  • Precautionary Principle must be explicit and it is meaningfull and usefull as a normatively guiding principle.
  • The researcher has also responsibility for what is published and responsibility to consider if what is publiced might have dual use.
  • There is a need for building up ethical competence similar to that in animal trials and research involving humans.

Frida Kuhlau means that there is a need to create a culture of dual use responsibility for research to continue to be free and open research.

This very interesting. The researcher has a number of ethical principles to follow such as those for animal trials, research involving humans, publishing ethichs, plagiarism and not to falsify research data. On top of this they have to consider open access and making research data freely available. The balance between being open with research and have responsibility for how research results are used is probably difficult. I wonder how long a researcher has responsibility for his/hers research results: at the moment misuse is not possible but in ten years a new component has come…

There is a new Swedish book on publishing ethics and the authors mean that the most common way for research misconduct is authorship. There are authors who demand to be accredited as authors although they do not fill the criteria for authorship. They write in the book that maybe an independent authority should be established that one could contact if irregularities are detected. A research conduct council? They might also work with questions regarding dual use responsibility and questions regarding research conduct.

Pieta Eklund

Research misconduct and research data

There is a presumption that researchers’ keep their raw data in order, that there are lab journals and notes so that someone else can test the results by duplicating the research. This is not always the case. Sweden and most other countries do not have an adequate system to detect or expose research irregularities. The structure in place in Sweden today does not protect the one reporting of the irregularities or the one who has been suspected of misconduct, particularly well. A doctoral student might not dare to cast suspicion on his/her supervisor in the fear of damaging his/her own career or university does not want to investigate into allegations because it might mean losing research funding.

Often when irregularities in research are uncovered the research publications will be retracted. This means that results from the articles are not to be used in other research. Most of the retractions are done due to plagiarism, serious errors in interpretation of research data, fabricated research data or self plagiarism meaning that big part of text for one’s own previously published research is used without citing that work.

Brian Deer uncovered falsifications in a study into the possible connection between vaccination and autism. The so called Wakefield study had falsified number of things in the research. It took twelve years for The Lancet to retract the article. Deer means that researchers should be controlled like sportsmen: unannounced visits to labs to make sure papers and log books and notes are in order.

The Swedish Research Counsil requires a data publishing plan to be attached to an application for research funding. They would like for the research data to be made openly available for others to have the possibility to use the same data for their project and also because openly available research data might increase citations. This demand brings out another question: might there be even other reasons? Could it be that this is a first step making it easier to control research results against research data and expose research misconduct?

There are voices in Sweden asking for a new system to manage suspicions of research misconduct. One of them is Madeleine Leijonhufvud, a professor in criminal law at the Stockholm University, says that the research world in Sweden is so small, everyone knows everyone, that there is a need to call in experts from abroad when cases of misconduct are investigated.

A database where you can search for retracted articles does not exist but Retraction Watch blog writes about retracted articles. There are a some studies made on retracted articles, .e.g. The persistence of error: a study of retracted article on the Internet and in personal libraries and A Comprehensive Survey of Retracted Articles from the Scholarly Literature.  The first one studies articles which have been retracted but are still available online and the second one studied retracted articles from several disciplines, not just within medicine and Life Sciences.

Both of these studies and parts of the research community are demanding ways to educate researches on research ethics but also to discuss more openly retracted literature and also to create better and independent organizations to investigate research misconduct. Maybe we should follow Norway? There you might be sentenced to prison for research misconduct.

First published in Biblioteksbloggen 2013-02-13

By: Pieta Eklund