Ethical Vs. Unethical Research

In ethical research, test subjects make an informed decision to participate.
In ethical research, test subjects make an informed decision to participate. (Image: Comstock Images/Comstock/Getty Images)

Throughout the history of mankind, research has played a pivotal role in advancing civilization by providing solutions to our most complex and perplexing problems. Through extensive exploration, critical analyses and endless studies, scientists, doctors, engineers and mathematicians have introduced cures and innovations that have eradicated many of the world’s most devastating diseases and improved the quality of life for millions. According to The Science Coalition, current research will provide the technology for increasing highway safety, predicting earthquakes, distilling water, combating terrorism, treating cancer and eradicating blindness and deafness. However, research is not always conducted ethically and humanely.


In ethical research, test subjects agree to be involved in the experimentation process. Their participation is voluntary, not a result of coercion or deception. In unethical research, participants either have no knowledge that they're test subjects or they're forced to participate against their will. A classic example of the latter is the Nazi experiments that were performed on Jewish prisoners during World War II.


In ethical research, test subjects are provided with detailed information regarding the specificity of the research in which they have chosen to participate. This is known as informed consent. Test subjects are aware of the possible dangers and side effects involved with participating in the study and have given permission to proceed. In unethical research, the details of the study have not been divulged. Test subjects have no knowledge of possible hazards or risks, and have not been informed they may be jeopardizing their safety or putting their health in peril.


In ethical research, precautions are taken to ensure that the health of the test subject isn't compromised. Researchers don't exceed dosage requirements, cross pain thresholds or knowingly allow a disease or condition to persist without administering treatment. In unethical research, there are no safety measures to protect the test subject’s health. Because the ends justify the means, researchers may inject or otherwise introduce harmful substances into the participant’s body and treatment may be withheld until the desired effect has been achieved. During the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 400 African-American men who were infected with syphilis were studied by the U.S. Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972. However, the men were never told that they had syphilis. By the 1950s, penicillin had been introduced as a cure for syphilis but this information was never shared with the test subjects, many of whom died during the study.


Because animals can't voluntarily participate or give informed consent, using them as test subjects is an ethically controversial issue. Opponents argue that it's immoral to test animals and have classified this practice as “speciesism,” a form of discrimination similar to sexism or racism. However, within the class of research that does allow for experimentation with animals, in ethical research, care is taken to ensure the animals are treated humanely and do not suffer unnecessarily. In unethical research, animals are not given anesthetics or tranquilizers and are not treated with compassion.

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