Conversations About Research Ethics



The CARE program is a year-long university-wide series of faculty-led conversations related to the ethical issues that arise from engaging in research. There is a need to explore not only the ethical importance of research at Ohio State University, but also the ethical problems that come up in the process of conducting research and the manner in which our university community members address these challenges across the disciplines. The panel discussions we host will create opportunities for researchers across the OSU campus to engage in a more comprehensive and critical reflection about the ethical ramifications of the way they conduct their research.

Why OSU Needs CARE 

The aim of CARE is to spark a university-wide conversation about research ethics that goes beyond human subjects protection and research integrity as it is traditionally understood and defined by regulations. When thinking about the ethical challenges that arise in academic research, the images that are most often conjured up take the form of two extremes: one either envisions (i) limited, and occasionally nitpicky, feedback from institutional review boards or or (ii) newspaper headlines chronicling disgraced scientists, falsified data, and retracted articles.

Missing from this binary picture are the complex and difficult ethical dilemmas and challenges that most researchers encounter every day. These are researchers who are motivated by the scientific and social value of their work to responsibly design and conduct their research, but who nonetheless face pressing ethical quandaries in the field or in the lab which they must navigate. These ethical challenges arise out of the persistent social inequities that create vulnerable populations as well as in response to the demands of current funding structures, publishing practices, and norms of academic advancement.

Take for example,  the following case from a recent ETHOS interview with Ellen Mosley-Thompson and Lonnie Thompson, who were discussing the general ethical importance of their work in ice core paleoclimatology.  When asked what distinctive ethical challenges they faced conducting their research, Lonnie Thompson described the obstacles they confront given the global reach of their research:  “When we drill around the world, most societies view these glaciers as sacred places. And they ask, ‘what are you going to do? Are you going to drill a hole right through this glacier?’ ...Sometimes you are required to do things that there is no textbook, in order to get permission” from the local community.  Dr. Thompson and Dr. Mosley-Thompson recalled the many different ways in which the research team had to go above and beyond procuring local governmental approval and adhering to regulatory oversight in order to obtain local buy-in. In one instance, the research team had to participate in local sacrificial rituals to show respect for tribal deities; in another instance they had to reckon with the local community’s suspicions that drilling would “be extracting the memories from the mountain.”

These episodes depict ethical challenges that even the most responsible of researchers face when in the field or in the laboratory. They do not merely bear upon the question of what is ethically permissible when engaging in research—the questions federal regulations and institutional oversight committees are set up to enforce—but rather questions about what is the right thing to do. In other words, it is not merely a question of what is ethically permissible but of what is ethically optimal. Research integrity and responsible conduct require researchers to think critically about the full ethical dimensions of their work rather than strategically about how to adhere to the regulations.