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

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

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.

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