This article aims to help you question the ethical approach present in your research plan, including your motivations and methods selected before moving into action.
The Nuremberg code
After the report of many abuses of human subjects in biomedical experiments in war camps during WWII, a code was drafted as a set of standards for judging physicians and scientists. This code became the prototype of future codes. It consists of rules that guide researchers in their work. Three main priciples were identified and should assist scientists to understand the ethical issues inherent in research involving human subjects.
Three basic ethical principles
Based on the Belmont Report, the three main basic ethical principles that we will cover are: respect of persons, beneficence and justice.
Respect of Persons
This principle aims to bring awareness to subjects of an experiment and provide them with information that will help them choose whether they want to participate or not. In addition, it requires the individual participating to have maturity to do so. Also, the person must be informed of possitive and negative effects in order to make a deliberate decision.
There are people that due to illness, mental disability or restricted liberty may not be capable of self-determination. In those cases, those subjects must be protected while they mature or are incapacitated.
Today, it’s common to download apps in our phones, click the insall button, followed by a first message that asks for permission to access our personal data, sometimes camera, microphone or even location. Now, how would you feel if this message wasn’t prompted and accepted by you? This is an example of a tech company that follows the respect of persons principle.
What other examples do you remember that apply it? Think about it for 2 minutes.
What about the time you downloaded an app and they asked you if you wanted to send data from error reports to the customer service team? or… the time you received a messaged and you were able to “unsuscribe” from a newsletter? By giving the option to opt out, you are also giving respect for persons.
The beneficence principle is considered an obligation and focuses in two main actions:
- Do not harm.
- Maximize possible benefits and minimize possible harms.
“Do not harm” might sound as a simple statement, but actually, it requires first a good understanding of what is harmful. Also, the journey to find that answer might imply a risk of harm to the investigator or the subject. For this reason, a comparison between harms and benefits must be presented and discussed before moving forward with an experiment.
In COVID19 times, an economical slow down was the effect of the necessity of closing in-person businesses in order to prevent the virus transmission. A vaccine accelerated testing has been approved by the Government and moved into the human trials phase at an unprecedented speed. Now, having human trials is imperative to understand the efficacy of a vaccine that could save millions of lives and set the worldwide economy back to a growing rate.
People joining the trials did it voluntarily and they understood the potential harms involved. From the researcher perspective, choosing a limited but large human test group preserves both principles. If the vaccine fails, they can learn from it and don’t risk the larger population from side effects. If the vaccine works, the benefit is much greater because it would save many more lives plus it would reinstate the lifestyle people used to have before the virus breakout.
What other examples come to your mind?
The Justice principle focuses on equality between beneficiares and people who carry the burdens of an experiment. Subjects in an research project should be carefully selected in order to be representative of the population that will perceive the benefit.
Let’s imagine you are making a model to predict who should get approval on a bank credit and get a “good customer tag” which could lead to lower credit interest.
In your model, you consider a sector that is predominantly a white group as your customer base becuase it’s data readily available. Do you believe there is justice in this approach? In a general perspective, statistics show that the white ethnicity tends to earn more than other ones. The questions is: how many people will be denied a credit based on your model?
That model could be a lifechanger for many people who can actually pay. The ones collecting the benefits might only be the white group in the model created, who in effect get a lower credit interest and are considered “good customers”. As a result, having lower credit interest permit more savings which directly impacts their lifestyle.
Of course, this is just an hypotethic example but the main goal is to explore justice from an equality perspective.
The application of ethical principles must be part of any project a scientist works on. Use the three ethical basic principles to test your plan and make sure you involve different stakeholders with different perspectives. Seek the enrichment of posing ethical questions and consider different answers to each of them. When ambiguity appears, think about the broader picture and check for beneficence. Make sure diversity and inclusion is part of your experiment when applicable.
Hopefully, next time you are designing or reviewing your research work, the ethical perspective is roundly considered.
- The National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research. (1979). The Belmont Report: Ethical principles and guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research.