The scientific research is devised and conducted based upon the professional standards of science and the foundation of public trust in the scientific community that generates the relationship between scientific integrity and society trust. Researchers have a specific responsibility to hold and apply scientific research and ethical standards in a manner that adhere primarily to these standards and to maintain a positive research environment for continued research progress. In turn, applying the ethical standards in research is crucial in order to maintain a researcher’s creditability. The aim of this paper is to introduce the importance of research ethical standards by exploring ethical requirements that researchers must meet for conducting research with human participants or with data that comes from publicly available databases. This paper is divided into four sections. The first section prescribes literature review related to research ethical discipline. The second section details a discussion about a set of ethical standards upon which a research can be built from ethics perspective. This section is further divided into four sub-sections that elucidate specific ethical foundations and requirements. The third section provides recommendations that could support scholarly research. The last section concludes the paper by addressing the value of well-applied ethical standards in scientific research.
Conducting a scientific research requires adherence to specific protocols, such as selecting a particular research design, complying with an editorial style and wrestling to operationalize ethical standards. The key ethical standards that should underlie a research project are behavioral rules and regulations which are established by professional organizations and culminated by researchers’ inner desire to act honestly, fairly, and wisely. However, there are various ethical standards that regulate researchers’ behavior. For example, the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics (APA, 2002) posits an extensive list of ethical standards that includes: resolving ethical issues, human relations, privacy and confidentiality, record keeping, and research and publication. Another topology of ethical standards includes three sets of obligations that researchers should possess: collegiality trust, personal integrity, and public interest (“On being a scientist,” 2009). Equally important, the adherence to the ethical standards not only satisfies scientific ethical codes but also, and perhaps more important, leads to better scientific results because the compliance to ethical research standards spawns more awareness to each step in research processes, including statistical techniques, data integrity, and authorship issues (Oakley, 2010). Furthermore, in planning and conducting research, as well as in reporting research results, researchers should fulfill various obligations in order to meet the ethical standards set forth by scientific and professional organizations.
The first challenge of meeting ethical standards is to avoid several serious forms of scientific research misconduct. The academic literature on what constitutes a scientific misconduct offers a plethora of definitions. But they collectively agree that fabrication, falsification of data and plagiarism constitute the primary dimensions of scientific misconduct (Fanelli, 2009; Kornfeld, 2012; Marusic, Katavic, & Marusic, 2007).
Fanelli (2009) explored a quantitative study that included many surveys demonstrating scientific misconduct. The purpose of this study was to measure how frequent is scientific misconduct? Different data collection approaches have been employed by the author to identify how many scientists have committed or observed other researchers committing scientific misconduct. For example, the author searched citation databases, scientific journals, and Internet search engines to gather data about scientific fraud, falsification, or fabrication. The author also conducted direct surveys for the purpose of applying meta-analysis of these surveys data on scientific misconduct. According to Fanelli (2009), the study findings indicate that two percent of scientists committed to have fabricated, falsified or modified data which reveals serious forms of scientific misconduct. The finding also provides some data supporting the effectiveness of institutional policies to reduce scientific misconduct.
To take the most prominent example in the scientific misconduct, Clarkeburn and Freeman (2007) investigated how business students perceive and understand the seriousness of plagiarism in academic practices. The purpose of this study was to investigate the impact of an online academic honesty learning model that contains seven academic honesty topics, on improving truthful academic writing. The first four- disciplinary topics are concerned with plagiarism issues; meanwhile, the remaining ones are related to other forms of academic dishonesty. Data was automatically collected from a sample that contains 297 undergraduate or graduate students of courses in economic and business using software surveys. The model allows respondents for auto- responding to open-ended and multiple choice questions about ethical and unethical academic practices and using a 6-point liker scale. The model offers different forms of academic misconduct and requires respondents to select and rate the seriousness of each pattern. The most obvious findings of the study that pertained to plagiarism (i.e., copying other’s idea and words without giving the source of that information) showed that 10 percent of respondents failed to recognize plagiarism as inappropriate form of academic misconduct. The results obtained from this study also indicate that more than 50 percent of respondents deem poor paraphrases as acceptable academic practice. These findings expand the knowledge on irresponsible research practice by adding new information from the perspective of research misconduct that requires academic institutions to set high standards for integrity in research and to motivate honest practice.
Furthermore, while plagiarism, fabrication and falsification are serious forms of academic misconduct, recent studies show that plagiarism has no essential impact on the reliability of the research results (Clarkeburn & Freeman, 2007; Steneck, 2006), but plagiarism can dilute, or merely erode, trust not only among researchers but also between researchers and scientific society.
In contrast, the real impact of data fabrication and falsification on academic misconduct undoubtedly can jeopardize research integrity. According to Bedeian, Taylor and Miller (2010), Fanelli (2009) and Kornfeld, (2012), fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism constitute a scientific misconduct. Data fabrication involves inventing information that does not based on a research or an experiment results (e.g., making up data or results; Fanelli, 2009). In turn, plagiarism exemplifies a form of fabricating sources (Bedeian et al., 2010). Whereas, falsification encompasses the deliberate alteration or manipulation of data to meet desirable needs from a specific experiment (Clarkeburn & Freeman, 2007; Engineering and Public Policy et al., 2009; Steneck, 2006). In addition, fabrication and falsification are very hard to detect (Clarkeburn & Freeman, 2007) or even to prove (Fanelli, 2009), because a questionable researcher, who involves suspected faculty research misconduct, could defend that he or she has committed the case from an innocent mistake perspective. Nevertheless, and according to Resnik and Stewart (2012), placing the questionable case into a comprehensive conceptual framework may assist in differentiating scientific misconduct from an innocent error. Misconduct is a serious and intentional deviation from acceptable practices that are generally considered the norms of science for proposing, conducting, and reporting research (Hilliard, Crudele, Matulich, & McMurrian, 2009). However, deviations that can be attributable to error or mistake are not deemed misconduct, but they may distort the scientific standards (Resnik & Stewart, 2012; Bedeian et al., 2010).
Equally disturbing, conducting a research encompasses a number of district and interrelated multi-steps including the selection of an experiment technique, the operationalization of a statistical measure, the identification and processing of data, and the interpretation and reporting of results. Through these research settings, researchers may unintentionally make innocent errors in such uncertain research practices. For example, De Vries, Anderson, and Martinson (2006) conducted a qualitative study using a focus group technique to gather data. The purpose of this study was to explore the kinds of behaviors that constitute scientific misconduct from scientists’ perspective. De Vries et al. (2006) administrated six focus groups from private and public universities with a sample that composed of 51 scientists who were recruited from diverse academic disciplines in the biological and behavioral science. De Vries et al. asked participants to report exposure to unethical behaviors in scientific practices. The study finding indicates that scientists were fully worried about the negative consequences that could be associated with fabrication, falsification, and plagiarism but they were troubled by day-to-day problems in the research environment. This result was confirmed so as to be relevant to the work conducted by Mumford et al. (2006). Mumford et al. (2006) found that entry-level doctoral students’ day-to-day research practices as a potential cause of ethical decisions have a remarkable negative impact on their ethical decision making. More specifically, an ethical decision making is related to personality traits perceiving how researchers recognize themselves and others (Mumford et al., 2006). However, De Vries et al. realized that scientific practice problems have often been linked to a plethora of knowledge that exists in a particular literature, data interpretation, a new knowledge generation, and the proper relationship with other researchers. In turn, academic misconduct including negligent deviations from accepted practices could be affected by such factors. Moreover, an innocent error is different from mistakes caused by researcher negligence (Resnik & Stewart, 2012). According to De Vries et al, uncorrected errors in data treatment or interpretation may lead to outright falsification; meanwhile, researches who are committing negligent mistakes are spawning works that does not meet scientific standards and placing their creditability, the subsequent works, and public’s trust at risk (Resnik & Stewart, 2012; Clarkeburn & Freeman., 2007; Naimi, 2007).
Furthermore, protection of human subjects (including the context of informed consent, confidentiality protection, and risk assessment) is a vital part of the research process, in particular, ethical standards. When scientists conduct research using a survey research technique, to gather data about certain phenomenon, they should ensure that potential participants can give a truly informed decision about whether or not to participate in the research. This type of ratification must be based on a clear explanation and full comprehension that the participant understands what the researcher wants him or her to answer and consents to the research study (Aliyu, 2011; Griffiths & Harmon, 2011; Krahn & Wallwork, 2011). The use of human participants in research is subject to regulations and codes of ethics. For example, the American Psychological Association’s code of ethics (APA, 2012) stipulated a provision for informed consent through which a scientist who conducts a study in the context of human subject research should not only require to obtain informed consent but also to apply documentation process of this mutual agreement in written or oral format (APA, 2012). According to Griffiths and Harmon (2011), the process of informed consent involves three fundamental components; (1) the prospective participant understands risk that may be involved; (2) the consent must be obtained without coercion, and (3) the participant must be mentally eligible. Aliyu (2011) and Plankey-Videla (2012) argue that, informed consent document encompasses the purpose of the study and related potential benefits and risks, confidentiality of data being collected, and participants’ freedom to choose whether to cease their participation in the study. However, the primary obligation of a research participant falls in his or her truthful and honest answers. In turn, the participant has the right to maintain his or her data confidentially (Aliyu, 2011; Murphy et al., 2009). However, a possible waiver of informed consent may be allowable, provided that data for the proposed research will come from publicly available databases through which there are no human subjects involved. The dispensability of an informed consent may exist so long as a research has no adverse consequences on the participants, involves no more than minimal risk, and represents an archival research (APA, 2012; Krahn & Wallwork, 2011).
Furthermore, ethical discussions usually remain associated with the role of institutional review boards (IRBs) in research projects that is involved human research subjects. The IRBs are responsible of reviewing over all research proposals that involve working with human subjects and animals to protect their rights and welfare (Aliyu, 2011; Naimi, 2007). To meet this goal, IRBs have the power to approve or disapprove research proposals. For instance, Klitzman (2011) conducted a qualitative study to explore the underlying causes of conflicts that may exist between institutional review boards and academic researchers. According to Klitzman (2011), academic researchers view IRBs as gatekeepers who have the power to approve, disapprove, or force changes in studies. Klitzman (2011) exemplifies that IRBs may send back informed consent forms to principle investigators in order to warrant more protection for study participants. In turn, the researchers perceive IRBs’ response as a signal for frustration. However, based on a sample that contains 19 public and 27 private institutions that are selected from different regions in USA, Klitzman (2011) interviewed 46 chairs, directors, administrators, and members using in-depth telephone interviews. The study results indicate that IRBs and academic researchers perceive the conflicting issues from different perspectives. To a certain extent, IRBs have a justifiable power that deserved to allow them following regulations and subsequently are subject to upper administration agencies. Nevertheless, the standardized structure of informed consent forms diminishes IRBs’ power to require changes. On the other extreme, academic researchers view IRBs as having a certain amount of power; hence, they are not allowed to proceed in their research without IRBs’ approval. Klitzman (2011) provides a plausible explanation of this disagreement and concludes that IRBs may misperceive researchers’ complaints, but the researcher should also understand the role of IRBs as an agent who implements specific regulations to ensure that human subjects’ rights are adequately protected.