How early-career researchers can avoid ethical ‘grey areas’

Here are four ways to keep on track.

  • Gemma Conroy

Credit: JJPan/Getty

How early-career researchers can avoid ethical ‘grey areas’

Here are four ways to keep on track.

10 September 2020

Gemma Conroy


Navigating ethical grey areas can be a major challenge for researchers. This is especially true when conducting pandemic-related research, where ethical guidelines and safety protocols for trials and experiments are evolving as knowledge of the disease progresses.

While institutional review boards can catch ethical issues in research proposals, researchers are “on their own” once the study is underway, says Stefan Eriksson, director of the Centre for Research Ethics and Bioethics at Uppsala University in Sweden.

“The problem is these boards only look at what researchers promise to do,” says Eriksson. “When it comes to actually doing the research, the researcher must be able to assume responsibility.”

A lack of clear guidelines in journal policies also makes things difficult.

A recent study led by Eriksson looking at the retraction policies of 32 academic journals and publishers found that most do not have explicit policies for how to handle unethical research. Only one publisher provided clear guidance for what constitutes unethical research practices.

A clearer commitment from publishers to retract deeply unethical research could help to deter researchers from conducting questionable studies in the first place, says Eriksson.

Until more widely accepted guidelines are established, researchers need their own checks in place to prevent ethical breaches from taking place, Eriksson suggests.

Here are four things to consider.

1. Regularly check in with participants

Informed consent isn’t just something you obtain when recruiting participants. It’s important to view informed consent as an ongoing process, says Eriksson, rather than a “legal requirement where you just tick the boxes”.

“You have to make sure that people understand why they are taking part in the research and that they can say no if it becomes a burden down the track,” says Eriksson.

Poor communication with participants can lead to confusion, particularly when it comes to their rights.

For example, patients involved in drug trials may view a signed consent form as a legally binding contract that prevents them from dropping out of the study, even if they experience harmful side effects or receive no benefit from a treatment.

“These kinds of misunderstandings are the responsibility of researchers,” says Eriksson. “You must ensure that the participants’ understanding evolves as the research progresses.”

2. Put yourself in the participants’ shoes

While it’s easy to get caught up in study design and data collection, researchers should also view things from a participant’s perspective.

One of the most effective ways to do this is to take part in someone else’s study, says Hannah Farrimond, a medical sociologist at the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. Farrimond participated in a study investigating how women balance their careers with parenthood, and found it to be a valuable experience.

“This can give you a window into what it’s actually like to have someone ask you lots of difficult questions, or the kinds of stresses that come up,” she says.

It’s also important to consider participants’ circumstances, living situations, and cultural backgrounds when designing ethically sound research projects.

For instance, when interviewing vulnerable groups for qualitative surveys, such as people with disabilities or those living in low-income communities, researchers should have a clearly defined protocol for dealing with sensitive information disclosed by participants, particularly when it falls outside the research topic.

“It’s not enough to say, ‘These are vulnerable people, we’ll be sympathetic if anything comes up’,” says Farrimond. “You have to be prepared for all kinds of unexpected situations.”

3. Know who to talk to when ethical challenges arise

Ethical issues are not always clear-cut, so it’s a good idea to identify people who can offer advice on how to navigate grey areas, for example, a local ethics committee or a senior colleague.

“It’s important for early career researchers to have a chain of authority they can go to when things get ethically problematic,” says Farrimond. “One way to prevent something terrible from happening is to tell people about what you’re doing.”

It’s also a good idea to build a network of specialists and professionals who are equipped to handle unexpected challenges safely.

For instance, if a participant in a medical study mentions that they are experiencing domestic violence, researchers can refer them to a specific counsellor instead of providing them with a list of phone numbers, which could trigger a dangerous situation for the participant.

“The best thing you can do is to make sure there’s a team around you,” says Farrimond.

4. Don’t just memorize ethical guidelines – put them into practice

Young researchers should seek opportunities to apply ethical guidelines rather than simply memorize them.

With guidelines and policies that are designed to be far-reaching and widely applicable, the limitations and nuances may only become clear once they are put into practice, says Farrimond.

“There are ethical principles that you can look to, but they don’t tell you what to do on the ground,” she says. “Ethical research is a practice.”

This is particularly important in situations such as a pandemic, where ethical guidelines and safety protocols are constantly evolving in response to the growing body of evidence associated with the disease.

Many agencies and research institutions, such as the World Health Organization, having been providing updated research guidelines since the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak, from new standards for vaccine trials to advice for using tracking technologies for contact tracing.