April 13, 2024

Will a code of ethics make researchers ethical?

The World Economic Forum has released ethics guidelines for researchers.

Research ethics is seen by many as an exercise in compliance. The so-called “principles” of research ethics, on this view, provide a minimum standard of ethical practice and they shield against the risk of professional sanction.

But a code of ethics drafted by the World Economic Forum Young Scientists Community offers a loftier picture of ethical practice in scientific research.

The Code of Ethics for Researchers encourages scientists not just to avoid negligence and harm, but also to consider the extent to which their research contributes valuable knowledge to some discipline or other, and whether their work has some practical impact on the general public. The code asks researchers to consider, for example, whether they are “pursuing the truth” by “following the reaearch where it leads, rather than confirming an already formed opinion”.

There are seven sections within the document, each beginning with a principle like “minimize harm” or “support diversity”.

The code has been received well by many within the scientific community, and Nature magazine has gone as far as writing an editorial exhorting readers to examine how their own practice measures up to the code:

[The purpose of the code] is to stimulate open conversations “to safeguard a positive and sound research environment”. Accordingly, Nature readers may do themselves and others some good … [if they] discuss the ideals expressed, and consider how to live up to them in their own lab, research institution or funding agency. We at Nature are trying to do so, too.

While some see this moral awakening as a positive sign, others are sceptical of the code’s ability to change practice. Speaking at the World Economic Forum earlier this year, UC Berkeley bioethicist Jodi Halpern said scientists need to be taught how to think ethically:

“People need rigorous education in ethical reasoning, which is just as rigorous as science education… I’d like to have every doctoral student…pass a rigorous exam showing how they would deal with certain ethical dilemmas. And everybody who will be the head of a lab someday will have really learned how to do that type of thinking.” 

Will a code of ethics make researchers ethical?
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
professional integrity
research ethics