Unethical Data

Sometimes, researchers violate legislative frameworks or essential ethical principles in the pursuit of science. What should be done with the results already collected in such cases? Should researchers be allowed to use the material? The following explores some key considerations and proposed solutions related to this issue.

What's worth considering?

First, it's worth considering whether the experiment can reasonably be reproduced within legal and ethical boundaries. Reproducibility is a cornerstone of science, and if it's not feasible to replicate the experiment because it would be unethical or illegal, there's less value in continuing the experiment or publishing the results. Conversely, if the experiment's results can be verified within legal and ethical boundaries, this argues for a more lenient assessment. Second, consider the costs incurred by participants due to the rule violation relative to the expected benefit of continuing the experiment or allowing the use of data from the experiment. If the costs to participants were minimal, and the expected benefit to future patients from using the results is relatively significant, this argues for a more lenient assessment of the rule violation. Third, be mindful of how the costs of a sanction distribute among the various parties involved in the experiment compared to the costs for the party responsible for the rule violation. If a sanction incurs significant costs for other parties and less so for the responsible party, this argues for allowing further use of data from the experiment. Fourth, consider how a potential sanction (or the absence of one) will affect future compliance with the rules. This applies to both the individual researcher who stepped out of line and other researchers who might consider breaking the rules in the future. Fifth, consider whether participants' autonomy has been taken into account. For example, were they consulted about the use of their data (which, in itself, is a form of sanction against the researcher)? If participants have been consulted and have consented to the future use of their data, this argues for a more lenient assessment.

What can be done?

There are several different solution models for dealing with data collected outside the rules, apart from either permission or rejection to continue the experiment or publish the results. One could require the researcher to inform participants of the rule violation and ask for permission to use their data despite its illegal collection. Another option could be requiring the researcher to pay compensation to the participants, especially if the participants have suffered or had their rights violated due to the rule violation. Finally, one could demand that the researcher declare (in connection with publishing) that the data was collected without the necessary permission, inform about the circumstances of the rule violation, and the permission to use the data despite this. As this sanction is relatively public, it can be expected to have a greater deterrent effect than more discreet solutions occurring between the researcher and participants.

Last updated 01-02-2024
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