Case Studies, Student Voice

Unethical Research Kills : the importance of ethics in any research

Read the whole series.

Before ethics was recognised as an essential part of scientific research, researchers ran amok trying to find correlations and causations, paying no mind to the impact their research had on participants or society. Some researchers even believed that potentially harming their participants was for the greater good of humanity. 

For example, in the year 1796, Edward Jenner was in the process of attempting to eradicate smallpox. It was known that people previously infected were then immune to the disease. Following this logic, Jenner decided to scrape pus from pustules on milkmaids’ hands and inject it into the body of an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps. Phipps developed mild symptoms of sickness such as fever and chills, however, he never developed full-blown smallpox. This was the first ‘vaccine’ against contagious diseases and is seen as a revolutionary experiment in medical science. 

Original artwork by Tasha Suresh

Although there was a happy ending to this experiment, this would never be allowed in the present day, with ethical guidelines in place to ensure the safety of everybody involved in research. These ethical guidelines are necessary because not every person involved in research is as lucky as James Phipps. 

In 1897, Giuseppe Sanarelli was trying to develop a vaccine for yellow fever, and similar to Jenner’s method, Sanarelli injected five people with yellow fever bacteria. This was done without the consent of participants and caused all of them to develop the disease and three of them to die from it. 

Original artwork by Tasha Suresh

Sanarelli is not the only researcher to cause such tragedy due to a lack of ethical guidelines and rules. There are a plethora of such experiments, across every scientific discipline. 

Thankfully, there are measures in place to prevent history from repeating itself. It is extremely important for any researcher, even student researchers, to be familiar with the ethics of research. This spans the totality of research, from how to obtain participants, how to treat participants, how to keep participant confidentiality and how to ensure data is not tampered with. 

Although we now have Ethics Committees and rules for conduct, there are many facets of research that can turn harmful if not carefully monitored and handled. For instance, researcher bias can get in the way, making the researcher believe they have found an effect or correlation when they truly haven’t. Researchers may even completely make up results to support a premeditated conclusion. For instance, a study was published and cited by medical professionals, claiming that Ivermectin (traditionally used as a horse dewormer, but in small doses is used to medically treat humans for some illnesses) could cure Covid. The results that demonstrated its efficacy in the research were made-up, and this was brought to light by a Masters student in London who was writing a paper on Covid. The damage had already been done, however. People all over the world tried to get their hands on Ivermectin, and this false conclusion was even used to dissuade the public from getting vaccinated. Personally, the father of a friend of mine believed the claim that Ivermectin could cure Covid, and decided to give their dog Ivermectin as a preventative measure. Unfortunately, this caused the dog to go blind, illustrating just how dangerous research which does not follow ethical guidelines can be. 

Original artwork by Tasha Suresh

Of course, not all ethical breaches are this obvious and drastic. Ethical issues can arise in milder, unintentional ways, like accidentally telling your friends who it was that you interviewed for your qualitative study, or not storing data in a secure way, or forgetting to ask for informed consent and debriefing participants afterwards. 

At BILT, we want to ensure that all of Bristol’s student researchers and any participants of studies know their responsibilities and rights so that the wonderful, insightful studies carried out by our students are ethically sound. Therefore, we are starting an initiative on our site which we are aptly (and clearly, very creatively) calling “Ethics in Research”. Every two weeks, a blog post will be uploaded to our site detailing different aspects of ethics in research, in a way that is accessible and interactive. Hopefully, these blog posts will act as support for any student carrying out research, especially those who are applying to be part of The Student Research Journal and to have their work displayed in the Festival of Undergraduate Research.

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