Ethical Issues in Research

What are the current issues involving ethics in research?

In conducting qualitative research, some ethical issues must be considered. These are animal rights and welfare, human rights, and scientific misconduct. Animal rights and welfare are considered in biological studies involving animal behavior. Human rights are upheld in studies participated by humans. Scientific misconduct is related to scientific dishonesty.

For quite some time, animal rights and welfare has been a debated topic. This debate still continues with two schools of thought. One group, composed of animal rights and animal welfare advocates, claims that it is not necessary to use animals in research. Another group argues that research studies on animals are needed to understand them better and achieve an environment where humans and animals can live in harmony. In the field of medicine and pharmaceuticals where quantitative research studies are mostly done, many serious debates happen.

If the use of animals in research is inevitable, it is suggested that the 3Rs—reduce, refine, and replace—must be considered.

  1. Reduce. The least number of animal subjects is recommended. If casualties cannot be avoided, these should be minimized without sacrificing the quality of the research results. However, this practice is contrary to that in social science research where the number of subjects is maximized to elicit valid and more comprehensive conclusions.
  2. Refine. If harm cannot be avoided, research procedures are evaluated and refined carefully to minimize possible pain and suffering of the animal subjects. They should be treated in such a way that they are free from stressful conditions. They should also be given proper care while under the period of study.
  3. Replace. If there is a possibility of replacing animals by other materials or other nonliving or nonbiological subjects, replacement options must be explored. 

Misconception Alert!
Animal welfare and animal rights are two different concepts. Animal welfare refers 40 the consideration of what the animals feel when a certain procedure is done on them, while animal rights assume that animals think, feel, and protect the interest of other animal species. Researchers are concerned with the welfare of animals in research. That is why they ensure that in every research procedure, there should be minimal pain and stress to the animal.

The principles on animal use in research are based on the Philippine Republic Act No. 8485, otherwise known as the Animal Welfare Act of 1998. The purpose of this act is to protect and promote the welfare of all animals in the Philippines by supervising and regulating the establishment and operations of all facilities utilized for breeding, maintaining, keeping, treating, or training of all animals either as objects of trade, subjects of research, or as household pets. It is also stated in the law that, there shall be no person, association, partnership, corporation, cooperative, or any government agency or instrumentality, including slaughter houses, shall establish, maintain, and operate any pet shop, kennel, veterinary clinic or hospital, stockyard, corral, stud farm, or zoo for the breeding, treatment, sale or trading, or training of animals, without first securing a certificate of registration from the Bureau of Animal Industry.

To enforce the law and facilitate the regulations of animal welfare, an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) is encouraged to be formed by research institutions to oversee the processes done on research involving animals. This committee should be composed of a chairman, a qualified scientist in every specific field or discipline, a civic society member, and a registered veterinarian.

In the Philippines, all IACUCs are registered in the Bureau of Animal Industry of the Department of Agriculture, the regulating body of the government for all activities concerning animals and animal welfare. Other nongovernmental entities like the Philippine Association for Laboratory Animal Science (PALAS) are also organized to complement the government’s efforts along with this thrust.

Before any animal study can commence, the research proponents must submit their proposals to the IACUC for review and evaluation. After ensuring that procedures conform to the existing laws and regulations regarding animal subjects, the committee approves the protocol and the proponents can start their investigation and experimentation.

Often, qualitative research studies involve human respondents. Because of this, a number of ethical considerations need to be strictly followed to ensure that humans are not harmed and exploited.

When research deems it necessary to have humans as subjects, the following human rights must be strictly observed:

  • All human respondents should participate in a research study out of his free will. They should not be forced or coerced to participate in any research undertaking.
  • All respondents should be informed of all the procedures, potential risks, and benefits that the research would bring. They may also demand a written agreement or an informed consent form from the researcher before they participate in any research activity.
  • The respondents shall not be subjected to anything that may cause them inconvenience or physical, emotional, and psychological harm. They must be given a pre-activity orientation about the purpose of the study to increase their understanding and remove possible deception. They should also undergo debriefing after data gathering to minimize any stress or inconvenience effected by the study.
  • All personal information extracted from the respondents shall be made confidential and should not be disclosed to the public at all conditions. They must also be assured that details of their responses are secured and will be used only for the purposes of the research.
  • A respondent may choose not to disclose his or her identity to anyone, including the researchers themselves. This means that all information and data that could be gathered from a participant could not in any way identify him/her to other participants.

The rights to privacy and data confidentiality are based on the Republic Act No. 10173, also known as the Data Privacy Act of 2012. This law aims to protect individual personal information from the information and communications systems in the government and the private sector. For this purpose, a national privacy commission was created. While the law protects human subjects’ identity, it also ensures free flow of information to promote innovation and growth.

An independent body known as National Privacy Commission was created to administer and implement the provisions of this act and to monitor and ensure compliance of the country to the international standards set for data protection.

Researchers are expected to follow rules and proper conduct in doing research. However, due to immense external pressure, there are some researchers who break the rules and oftentimes deviate from proper protocols, resulting in scientific misconduct. Scientific misconduct involves deviation from universally accepted conduct in research undertakings, resulting in scientific dishonesty.

  1. Fabrication and falsification of data. Known as ‘cooking the data, data fabrication and falsification involve producing data without an actual experimentation or altering data in recording for the intention to fit them to what are expected.
  2. Non-publication of data. In contrast with fabrication and falsification, non-publication of data involves choosing not to include data because they do not conform to the well-established body of knowledge or are unsupportive of the research hypothesis. Only the results that do not reject the hypothesis are reported and published.
  3. Faulty data gathering procedures. Negligence or carelessness lead to errors in measurement or faulty research instruments. Error may also be caused by inappropriate application of treatment to the subjects and poor data recording.
  4. Plagiarism. This fraudulent act involves claiming another person’s ideas, work, or publication. It is a form of intellectual property stealing and dishonesty that usually happens in scientific publications. The table below summarizes the types of plagiarism ranked according to decreasing severity of its content.
Types Description
clone The act of submitting another’s work, word-for-word, as one’s own
ctrl + C (copy-paste) The act of writing a study that contains significant portions of text from a single source without alterations
find-replace The act of changing key words and phrases but retaining the essential content of the source in a paper
remix The act of paraphrasing from other sources and making the content fit together seamlessly
recycle The act of borrowing generously from one’s own previous work without citation. This is also called self-plagiarism.
hybrid The act of combining perfectly-cited sources with copied passages—without citation—in one paper
mashup The act of mixing copied materials from several different sources without proper citation
404 error The act of including nonexistent citations or inaccurate information about sources
aggregator The act of including proper citations but containing almost no original work
re-tweet The act of including proper citation but relying too closely on the text’s original wording and/or structure