Ethics in Research: A contextual imperative

In today’s world of research, when the frequency of research has mushroomed, the question of ethics has come to the fore. We all learn ethics, sometimes at home, sometimes at educational institutions, sometimes even in course of social interactions. Ethics are broader, both in application and consideration, than laws; their implementation, however, becomes much more difficult. When it comes to research, the ethics angle becomes relevant for some reasons.

Research, in its implementation, aspires for perfection or prevention of error. For instance, any sample which is taken is aimed at representing the entire population. If at all, an ethical violation is committed in terms of fabrication or misrepresentation of data, not only does it violate ethical principles but also misappropriates the research results/findings.

Research also forms the foundation or basis for knowledge or further research; knowledge which is used or consumed by the society at large. For instance, the article in Harvard Business Review by a gentleman named Theodore Levitt, an article called “Marketing Myopia” became a cornerstone of not only for marketing but also for industrial analysis. The researcher therefore, has a fiduciary duty towards the public at large to not falsify such findings, simply because this misappropriation will propagate further misappropriations. From an economic and financial standpoint, it also makes sense to maintain ethical integrity in research. A client or the consumers of research are more likely to further or consume the research only if its integrity is maintained. This can especially be observed in case of market research agencies, for whom the acid test often becomes proving or ensuring the credibility of the research findings to prospective clients.

Research is rarely carried out in a compartmentalised fashion; there is always an element of cooperation between different entities across institutions and even geographical barriers. The upholding of ethical standards becomes almost an operational imperative in such cases. The ethical imperative becomes even more so in cases of life-concerning matters like medicine, defence etc.

Keeping in mind such problems, there are certain guidelines which should be kept in consideration while carrying any research initiative. First and foremost, ethics and economics are not always contraire aux each other; the economic feasibility should also be kept in mind while following ethics. This is after all a world of pragmatism, not altruism. Second, there’s no harm in sharing intellectual property and there’s no superiority in hiding it. There is a tacit notion that if one shares his research or acknowledges somebody else’s contribution explicitly, it would imply a shortcoming on the researcher’s part. On the contrary, a free flow of information is beneficial to everybody; the Internet thrives on its reputation as an information superhighway. There’s also a concretisation deficit; ethics as a discipline is not very concrete, which is why there is no firm consensus as to what is ethical and what is not. As research into ethics itself progresses, this matter will clear out the smoke. But most importantly, it is to be understood that research cannot be conducted at the cost of somebody’s free will and privacy.

In the words of German theologian Albert Schweitzer,

“Ethics is nothing else than reverence for life.”

After all, since research is nothing but an instrument of human inquiry, it should adhere to humanitarian ethics and there is no rationale grander than this.

Section B_Group 5_Jayesh Surisetti_13PGP082


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