Course Sections
Section One:
button for ethical issues section

Section Two:
button for interpersonal section

Section Three:
button for institutional section

Section Four:
button for professional section

Section Five:
button for animals section

Section Six:
button for human section

button for main page

O N L I N E   R E S E A R C H   E T H I C S   C O U R S E

Section One: Ethical Issues in Research
Introduction | Major Issues for Discussion | Case Study |
Footnotes | Additional Resources | Section Assessment and Certificate

Ethics matters in academic and scientific research. The study of ethics is no less and no more important in research than it is in any other practice that has the potential of causing harm or creating good for others. It is expected that practitioners will better understand how to be responsible researchers through the study of ethics. The study of ethics helps people think more clearly about professional expectations and encourages them to examine the assumptions that serve as the basis for conventional behavior. The hope is that the researcher's increased consciousness of his or her role will translate into more ethical action.

Through completing this section, successful participants will be able to:

1). Define and apply basic terms relating to the ethical conduct of research including research misconduct, fabrication, falsification, plagiarism, compliance, ethically prohibited behavior, ethically required behavior, ethically permitted behavior, and ethically encouraged behavior;

2). Distinguish between compliance and ethics; and

3). Describe the minimal requirements for research ethics training set forward by the Public Health Service (PHS).

Return to the Top

Major Issues for Discussion

The first step in learning how to use ethical concepts in dealing with matters of research is to become familiar with the terminology associated with research ethics.

This section is divided into two sub-sections:
1). Compliance and Ethics Terms, and
2). Public Health Service (PHS) Policy and Goals.

1) Compliance and Ethics Terms
The terms for this section are separated into compliance and ethics. Compliance and ethics are both necessary for the conduct of responsible research. Compliance means that investigators and institutions follow the rules that are set out for them. Rules regarding research come from the federal government, from funders, and from the institution itself. The essential elements of compliance are that an individual researcher knows the rules and that he or she is motivated to follow the rules.

Ethical behavior requires more than simply following the rules. Ethics is the study of how human action affects other humans, sentient beings, or the ecosystem. Ethical researchers understand that their actions have the potential of causing harm and the potential of promoting good for others, for the profession, for society, and for the natural world. They are aware of the special responsibilities that follow from the researcher role and work to fulfill those responsibilities. In the process of meeting their responsibilities, they seek to promote good when possible. Always, at a minimum, they choose actions that do not cause unjustified harm.

Ethical analysis provides a way of making sense of the rules and regulations. Fabrication, for example, is a type of research misconduct. It is legally and ethically prohibited. Fabrication is the act of making up data or results, then recording or reporting them as part of the research record. It is legally required for funding agencies and research institutions to take punitive actions against researchers who fabricate. They are held accountable for their actions.

Fabrication is ethically wrong because it is likely to lead to harm to others. The harm could be direct to a patient who takes a drug that is erroneously reported as having no serious side effects. The harm could be direct to another researcher who trusts the results of fabricated research and wastes valuable time, money and other resources in using that research as a basis for his or her own work. The harm is almost always indirect as well. Indirect harms include the decrease in trust that the general public has in research when they learn about cases of scientific misconduct. This decrease in trust is harmful to the public, who must depend on the accuracy of research.

Compliance Terms/1
Research: Includes all basic, applied, and demonstration research in all fields of science, engineering, and mathematics. This includes, but is not limited to, research in economics, education, linguistics, medicine, psychology, social sciences, statistics, and all research involving human subjects or animals, regardless of originating discipline. Research, according to the Belmont Report, is an "activity designed to test a hypothesis, permit conclusions to be drawn, and thereby to develop or contribute to generalized knowledge (expressed, for example, in theories, principles, and statements of relationships). Research is usually described in a formal protocol that sets forth an objective and a set of procedures designed to reach that objective."/2

Research Misconduct: Fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism in proposing, performing, or reviewing research, or in reporting research results. It does not include honest error or honest differences in interpretations or judgments of data.

Fabrication: Making up data or results and recording or reporting them as factual results.

Falsification: Manipulating research materials, equipment, or processes, or changing or omitting data or results such that the research is not accurately represented in the research record.

Research Record: The record of data or results that embody the facts resulting from scientific inquiry and includes, but is not limited to, research proposals, laboratory records, both physical and electronic, progress reports, abstracts, theses, oral presentations, internal reports, and journal articles.

Plagiarism: The appropriation of another person's ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others' research proposals and manuscripts.

Findings of Research Misconduct: A finding that research misconduct, in fact, occurred requires that the fabrication, falsification, or plagiarism be a significant departure from accepted practices of the relevant research community; and the misconduct be committed intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly; and the allegation be proven by a preponderance of evidence.

Research Institutions: All organizations using federal funds for research, including, for example, colleges and universities, intramural federal research laboratories, federally-funded research and development center, national user facilities, industrial laboratories, or other research institutes. Independent researchers and small research institutions are also included in this definition. Research institutions have the primary responsibility for prevention and detection of research misconduct./3

Research Integrity Officer: Institutional official responsible for assessing allegations of research misconduct. The Research Integrity Officer at most institutions, is the Vice President for Research, or that person's designee.

Legally Required
This terminology is used in the course to differentiate actions that are merely in compliance (legally required) from those actions that are ethically permitted.

Ethics Terms/4
Ethical (syn. Moral): Within the realm of considerations that looks at the potential harms caused to other persons, sentient beings or systems./5

Moral Agent: Someone who is aware or who has the capacity to be aware of the expectation that he or she not cause unjustified harm to other persons, sentient beings or systems.

General Morality: The questions relating to ethics in research are a subset of the questions that relate to general morality. General morality dictates that it is not acceptable to cause pain, death, disability, or deprive someone of freedom or pleasure without justification. General morality also requires that acts of deception, cheating, promise-breaking, law-breaking and neglect of responsibility be considered examples of wrongdoing unless there is justification for the acts.

Publicity: It is reasonable to expect individuals to act ethically only if it possible for them to know what those ethical expectations are and if following those expectations will not cause them unjustified harm. The expectations should be public. Exceptions that people want to make for not doing what is usually expected should be public as well.

Justification: Ethically acceptable exceptions to doing what is usually expected have the following features: 1) if they are justified for any person, they are justified for every person when all of the ethically relevant features are the same (one cannot justifiably make an exception of oneself if one is not willing to make the same exception for everyone in the same situation); 2) the exception cannot cause unjustified harm to oneself or others; and 3) the exception can be known publicly.

Ethical Rules: Rules that identify ethically questionable actions that are known to cause suffering or cause an increased risk of causing harm. One set of rules is that it is ethically prohibited to cause pain, death, disability or deprive others of opportunity or pleasure without justification. Another set of rules is that it is also ethically prohibited to do any of the following without good reason: deceive, cheat, break promises, break the law, or neglect one's duty.

Ethical Ideals: Ideals are actions that lessen the amount of harm suffered or decrease the risk that people, other sentient beings, or the ecosystem will suffer harm. As long as one is not violating an ethical rule, general morality encourages, but does not require, following ethical ideals. People are praiseworthy for following ethical ideals, but are not blameworthy for not performing the ideal.

Ethically Prohibited: Actions that are contrary to those required by general morality or by reasonable expectations within the research community and are not justifiable. People are blameworthy for acting in ethically prohibited ways. By way of example, it is ethically prohibited to violate the rules and regulations regarding responsible research that are set out by the federal government, funders, and research institutions.

Ethically Permitted: Actions that are consistent with those required by general morality and by reasonable expectations within the research community. It is ethically permitted to do more than follow minimal rules and regulations.

Ethically Required: Actions that follow from the special role-related responsibilities of being a researcher. It is ethically required that researchers be in compliance with federal and institutional rules and regulations.

Ethically Encouraged: Actions that are ethically permitted and, in addition, are intended to lessen suffering or lessen the risk of suffering harms.

Blameworthy: One who acts in ethically prohibited ways.

Praiseworthy: One who acts in ethically encouraged ways.

Descriptive Ethics: The study of how people do act.

Normative Ethics: The study of how people should act.

2) Public Health Service (PHS) Policy
The pending PHS policy requires that those who have direct and substantial involvement in proposing, performing, reviewing or reporting research or who receive research training supported by PHS funds or who work on PHS-supported research regardless of PHS support, complete a basic program of instruction in the responsible conduct of research.

PHS has identified nine core instructional areas. These are:

1). Data acquisition, management, sharing, and ownership;
2). Mentor/trainee responsibilities;
3). Publication practices and responsible authorship;
4). Peer review;
5). Collaborative science;
6). Human participants;
7). Research involving animals;
8). Research misconduct; and
9). Conflict of interest and commitment.
Within a presentation of these core areas, information about compliance with related PHS and institutional policies should be included. PHS does not require that all research staff have training in all areas. Institutions may use discretion in determining educational needs.

However, most research institutions are committed to the long-term goals identified by PHS for all researchers, not just those covered by the PHS requirements. Those goals include:

1). Increase knowledge of, and sensitivity to, issues surrounding the responsible conduct of research;

2). Improve the ability of participants to make ethical and legal choices in the face of conflicts involving research;

3). Develop appreciation for the range of accepted practices for conducting research;

4). Provide information about the regulations, policies, statutes, and guidelines that govern the conduct of PHS-funded research; and

5). Develop positive attitudes toward life-long learning in matters involving the responsible conduct of research./6

Thus, the institutional commitment is to create and maintain an environment that encourages ethical research, rather than research that is simply in compliance.

Return to the Top

Case Studies

Note: The case study will open in a new window. When you have completed all of the alternatives for a case, close the window to return to this section.

Case Study 1: Expedience, Misrepresentation, or Falsification?

Case Study 2: Crashing into Law.

Return to the Top


1/Unless otherwise noted, definitions relating to compliance are from "Research Misconduct Definitions and Guidelines for Federal Research Agencies," December 6, 2000, Federal Register, pages 76260-76264.

2/The Belmont Report.

3/PHS Policy on Instruction in the Responsible Conduct of Research (RCR), December 1, 2000.

4/Unless otherwise noted, definitions relating to ethics are from, or adapted from, Gert, Bernard, (1998). Morality Its Nature and Justification. New York: Oxford University Press.

5/Please note that the course authors have expanded Gert's sphere of those worthy of moral consideration from only living human beings. As is argued elsewhere, the authors include sentient beings and systems as subjects worthy of moral consideration.

6/PHS Goals.

Return to the Top

Additional Resources

Below are links that may help you understand ethics and compliance issues a little better:

  • Ethics and Compliance Strategies: "When it comes to developing effective ethics and compliance programs, the key to success is knowing how to present content rich material in an innovative manner. Whether it's developing a code of conduct, writing policies or designing a training session, you need to be creative, informative and cost effective. To get the most out of your ethics and compliance program, contact Ethics & Compliance Strategies. We know how to design programs that will win high praise from the world's most demanding audiences -- your employees."

  • Ethics Programs of the National Institutes of Health: "This site deals with standards of ethical conduct for federal employees."

  • Ethics Resource Center: "The Ethics Resource Center (ERC) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization whose vision is a world where individuals and organizations act with integrity."

  • Ethics in Science: This Web site contains many links to science ethics resources.

  • Ethics Updates: "Ethics Updates is designed primarily to be used by ethics instructors and their students. It is intended to provide updates on current literature, both popular and professional, that relates to ethics."

  • Guidelines for the Conduct of Research: "The Guidelines for the Conduct of Research expound the general principles governing the conduct of good science as practiced in the Intramural Research Programs at the National Institutes of Health. They address a need arising from the rapid growth of scientific knowledge, the increasing complexity and pace of research, and the influx of scientific trainees with diverse backgrounds. Accordingly, the Guidelines should assist both new and experienced investigators as they strive to safeguard the integrity of the research process."

  • Office of Research Integrity: "The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) promotes integrity in biomedical and behavioral research supported by the Public Health Service (PHS) at about 4,000 institutions worldwide. ORI monitors institutional investigations of research misconduct and facilitates the responsible conduct of research through educational, preventive, and regulatory activities. Organizationally, ORI is located in the Office of Public Health and Science within the Office of the Secretary of Health and Human Services."

  • Online Ethics Center for Engineering and Science: "Our mission is to provide engineers, scientists, and science and engineering students with resources for understanding and addressing ethically significant problems that arise in their work, and to serve those who are promoting learning and advancing the understanding of responsible research and practice in science and engineering."

  • NIH Bioethics Resources: "The Internet is replete with resources available to those with an interest in bioethics including education, research involving human participants and animals, medical and health care ethics, and the implications of applied genetics and biotechnology. This website contains a broad collage of annotated web links, and while this list is comprehensive, it is not totally inclusive. The listed resources provide background information and various positions on issues in bioethics."

  • NIH Office of Intramural Research: Links to training guides and ethical procedures developed by the US government.

  • Research Conduct and Ethics Instruction Materials: A collection of research ethics guidelines with cases studies from the NIH.

  • The US Public Health Service: The main Web site for access to the National Institutes of Health, Centers for Disease Control, Food and Drug Administration, and other health-related agencies.

  • US Office of Government Ethics: "On this site you will be able to access data about OGE and the services it provides. We hope that this site will help you understand the executive branch ethics program and our effort to reach Federal employees and the general public."

    Return to the Top

    Section Assessment and Certificate

    Make sure you have reviewed all of the materials within this section, before you attempt the assessment.

    When you have successfully completed the assessment, you will be offered an opportunity to print out a certification document for your records. You can then close the window and return to the course.

    To begin the assessment, click this link.

    Return to the Top

  • Ethical Issues in Research | Interpersonal Responsibility | Institutional Responsibility |
    Professional Responsibility | Animals in Research | Human Participation in Research |
    Return to the Main Page