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Research Ethics Is a Tricycle, Not a Unicycle

By Sam Dragga | STC Member and Dan Voss | STC Fellow

The discussion of research ethics often focuses on the actions and intentions of the researcher. And researchers do have important ethical duties to the participants in their studies; to their institutions and organizations, their discipline, and their profession; and to the journals, magazines, proceedings, white papers, and reports to which their research is submitted for publication. Reviewers and editors, however, also have important ethical responsibilities, as do the readers in their interpretation and application of research findings. That is, research ethics is a tricycle, steadied and stabilized by each of its wheels—or the different individuals involved in the overall research endeavor—instead of a precarious unicycle operating exclusively on the skill of the researcher.

Ethical Framework

In research ethics, as in any discussion of ethics, one must have a set of values with which to analyze potential ethical conflicts. Bear in mind there are often no “black-and-white” answers. It seems apropos, in this forum, to use the six tenets defined in the STC Ethical Guidelines (https://www.stc.org/about-stc/ethical-principles/) to create a foundation for understanding research ethics in the field, as each tenet has implications for conducting research:

  • Legality. This ethical tenet pertains to research ethics in a number of ways. When there are human subjects, particularly with medical research, privacy laws apply. And when research results are published—as is generally the case—copyright laws govern subsequent use of the published entry by others, whether that use be academic or commercial. In reporting their findings, researchers sponsored by or partnering with a corporation must not compromise the company’s intellectual property and proprietary information. The same holds true for data considered sensitive or classified by the United States or another government.

  • Honesty. This ethical tenet obviously applies to all three wheels of the research ethics tricycle: researcher, reviewer/editor, and reader. Yet, as critical as it is, honesty is often assumed to be the case on the part of researchers, reviewers and editors, and readers. Honesty applies in the researcher’s gathering of data (witness how readily empirical data can be falsified or how easily a survey can be “slanted” to yield the desired results); in the presentation of the data (witness “lying with statistics” or misleading visuals, which should be “refereed” by reviewers and editors); and in the interpretation and promulgation of data and research results by readers.

    Consider the laboratory partners in Chemistry 101, under pressure to get an “A” in the course, conducting an experiment to determine the specific heat of aluminum by heating 10 grams of aluminum to Y °C, immersing it in 100 milliliters of water at Z °C, measuring the resulting change in water temperature, and applying the appropriate formula:

    • Partner 1: “What temperature do you have?”
    • Partner 2: “What do you need?”
    • Partner 3: “71 °C would be about right.”
    • Partner 4 (squinting at thermometer): “What do you know—70.9 °C! Amazing!”
  • Confidentiality. This ethical tenet overlaps legality when it comes to the privacy of research subjects. When recording, archiving, and reporting data from participants in a research study, researchers are ethically bound to protect the anonymity of participants. They also must ensure research subjects are aware of confidentiality issues via disclosure and release forms. Confidentiality also applies to the “blind peer review” process that governs the acceptance of research articles for publication in technical journals.

  • Quality. This ethical tenet (as it applies to research, particularly the reporting of research findings) is composed of four attributes:

    1. Objectivity means the researcher should not have a bias or a self-interest in interpreting and presenting results of the study. Consider, for example, a pharmaceutical or medical research project where the primary goal in development testing is gaining market share rather than patient wellness. Data should be presented and interpreted strictly on its merits rather than “slanted” to serve the interest of the researcher or his/her sponsor. One recalls the famous commercial: “Four out of five dentists surveyed recommend sugarless gum for their patients who chew gum.” What the slogan leaves out is the number of dentists approached by the survey team (10? 100? 1000?) and the number who declined to participate. It also makes clever use of the restrictive clause “who chew gum,” as it omits what the surveyed dentists might have said about gum-chewing in general and, using the word recommend, implies a broad endorsement for what is actually a narrow caution directed only to patients who are already chewing gum.

    2. Thoroughness involves using appropriate and sufficient research methods and populations and subjecting findings to statistical analyses or equally rigorous processes for ensuring validity and reliability. A single study is unlikely to offer incontrovertible evidence: the more familiar you are with the findings of related studies, as well as the limits of their validity and reliability, the more credible and ethical will be your application of research findings.

      For example, if 60 people in a survey of 100 technical communicators in the United States thought that Helvetica was superior to Times New Roman for legibility in a side-by-side analysis of two one-page business letters, you would be wrong to claim that “a majority of technical communicators prefer Helvetica to Times.” You would also be misguided if you were to switch all of your organization’s documents to Helvetica because “research proves Helvetica is more legible” or if you were to encourage colleagues to stop using Times altogether. The only logical and ethical claim or action in this case is to identify the finding as “potentially significant,” meriting continued research with other populations and other kinds of documents.

    3. Accuracy applies to the collection, measurement, analysis, and reporting of findings. It requires a meticulous awareness of detail and scrupulous attention to precision throughout the research process. Accuracy refers not only to measuring research results (see “Honesty” earlier). It also requires us to avoid both exaggeration and gross simplification in presenting and interpreting results.

      Take, for example, the television station that reports “60% of callers to the station support Proposition X, and 40% are opposed.” While this finding might look impressive, its accuracy is impossible to determine without more information. When and for how long a period were calls received? Were these calls about Proposition X solicited or unsolicited? How many actual calls were received? Were any of these calls from the same caller? Is 60% exact or approximate (and if approximate, is it rounded up or rounded down)? A more accurate report would be: “We asked you to call us about Proposition X. We received 36 calls from different telephone numbers on Monday evening between 6 and 9 PM, with 21 supporting Proposition X and 15 opposed.”

    4. Clarity is paramount in presenting research results. In technical communication, clarity is achieved by presenting information as simply as possible without oversimplifying.

      This raises an interesting question: clarity for whom? Other subject matter experts in the area being researched, or an educated lay reader? The answer, of course, is audience-driven; thus, it would be appropriate for an article in a research journal to be written at a scholarly level, but not necessarily in the undefined esoteric jargon of the specific area of research. (Too often, researchers lapse into unbridled sesquipedalian “academese”—like this!—leading the reader to conclude they are more interested in impressing rather than informing.)

  • Fairness. This ethical tenet, rooted in honesty and respect for others, covers considerable territory in research ethics. When researching a controversial subject involving opinions and judgments, the researcher ought to present all sides of a debate even if he/she disagrees with some of the opinions. Fairness is particularly important in constructing surveys, gathering data, and interpreting results (consider the dentists “not surveyed” in the above example). Fairness is critical in administering a test and interpreting the results. Witness the misguided thinking and manifest bigotry generated by tests riddled with culturally biased questions that purport to demonstrate how one race is genetically inferior to another in native intelligence.

  • Professionalism. The description of the sixth STC ethical tenet, while broader in its intent, applies directly to a careful review of a research article by others: “We evaluate communication products and services constructively and tactfully, and seek definitive assessments of our own professional performance.” As described later, professionalism in research includes the process of reviewing, critiquing, and providing comments on research results prior to making a decision to publish them (e.g., publish as is with minor editing, publish with revisions, don’t publish).

Now let’s apply an ethical framework to the three wheels of the research ethics tricycle.

Researchers

The first wheel of the aforementioned research ethics tricycle is that of the researchers. Their ethical duties have been the subject of extensive scrutiny, especially regarding the protection of participants in research studies. And we know that the ethical researcher must be objective, fair, and professional.

Agendas and Objectivity

Would you trust the research on the potential environmental impact of fracking for oil if the researchers worked for a major oil company? Conversely, would you accept the results of a research study on the same subject by an environmental protection or conservation organization?

A researcher could have a personal agenda that jeopardizes the integrity of the research, be it simply the professional recognition of getting published (as in the academy’s “publish or perish” syndrome) whether or not the research is legitimate or even pertinent to the field; or the researcher could be seeking financial aggrandizement (as in marketing a product or service for oneself or one’s employer). Or a researcher might allow personal beliefs to influence the structure, execution, and reporting of a study on cloning or stem cell genetic research, Darwinism vs. Creationism, medical marijuana, or the origins of sexual orientation (nature vs. nurture).

Inclusivity and Exclusivity

A less-examined aspect of ethical research, however, concerns the inclusivity or exclusivity of the research project. With research involving human participants, depending upon the nature of the research (trial medication vs. placebo, opinion survey, even a political poll), the demographics of the study group are obviously key both to the relevance of the research and the validity of the results. Is the study group representative—that is, is it inclusive or does it exclude key demographic sectors? Is the study group the right sample for the subject being researched? Is it balanced for gender, ethnicity, age, educational level, and other cultural factors? Is it open for participation by persons with disabilities? For example, little has been addressed about a researcher’s obligation to make research projects accessible in recruiting participants and reporting results. Such factors have pronounced implications for what the results of research mean, how widely they can be applied (if at all), and if they can be tested or verified.

Availability and Accessibility

What about the availability and accessibility of the results of the research? How and where will they be published? Will they be published online, in a printed journal, or both? Is the printed or online journal open to others doing research in the field? Is the online journal in accessible format for readers with disabilities such as blindness (e.g., narrative text properly formatted for a screen reader, text descriptors provided for visuals)? All are central ethical factors the researcher needs to consider when reporting results.

If the research involves human participants, will the results be available and accessible to the participants to review? If so, will they be expressed in language and visuals the participants can understand? And will the results be released “as is” or after having been “laundered” by the special interest agent who commissioned the study? Such factors are key to address, for they not only have important ethical implications, they could also lead to serious legal consequences.

Relevance of Research Topic

One may ask if there are ethical implications to the choice of what subject to research. Does a researcher have an ethical responsibility for his/her research to yield some specific “return on investment” in terms of the importance of the results to the collective body of knowledge (pure research) or its potential for human benefit or avoidance of harm (applied research)?

For example, is it “OK” for a doctoral dissertation to be on a totally obscure topic like the migratory patterns of the speckled Malaysian crayfish, the only tangible benefit of which is to earn the writer a PhD? Be careful before answering that question too quickly: consider how many times human knowledge has ultimately benefitted from discoveries in the most unlikely of areas.

And is personal or corporate profit a legitimate basis for research? Be careful answering that question as well, lest you throw out the baby (the benefitting patient) with the pharmaceutical bathwater (the immense profits on specialized medications).

Reviewers and Editors

The second wheel of the research ethics tricycle involves the process commonly used to share research results via research publications such as journals (e.g., STC’s research journal Technical Communication). This process involves reviewers and editors in a cycle of activities:

The Review Process

After an author submits a manuscript, the editor acknowledges receipt. The editor then checks the manuscript for anything that might identify the author and deletes any identifying information from the text or the properties of the file itself. The editor identifies three individuals who would be qualified to serve as reviewers for this manuscript and inquires about their willingness to serve as reviewers.

If they are willing, the editor sends each a copy of the anonymized manuscript and a copy of the reviewer guidelines (i.e., the criteria for evaluation of manuscripts). The reviewers read and comment on the manuscript, sometimes annotating their copies with specific notes, corrections, and suggestions. The reviewers then return their reviews and annotated manuscripts to the editor and note their recommendation in terms of publishing the manuscript. This recommendation usually falls into one of three categories:

  • Accept (publish manuscript as is, except for minor formatting to the journal’s editorial style)
  • Reject (do not publish manuscript)
  • Revise and resubmit (revise manuscript according to reviewer suggestions and submit revised manuscript for a second review)

The editor summarizes the comments of the reviewers and reports to the author (and later the reviewers) on the disposition of the manuscript. If the recommendation is to revise and resubmit, the editor advises the author on how to implement proposed revisions, and the cycle of review proceeds again.

The Ethics of Review

We ordinarily imagine editors and reviewers as perceptive and impartial judges, and the majority deserve this reputation. Dubious behaviors, however, do occur. For this reason, different mechanisms have been developed to ensure ethical behavior during the overall review and publication process. The Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) represents one such initiative.

Formed in 1997 by a small group of journal editors in the United Kingdom and now 10,000 strong internationally, COPE is dedicated to “promoting integrity in research publication.” COPE advises editors on how to address ethical questions and identifies cases of ethical failures by editors and reviewers, including:

  • Breach of reviewer confidentiality (i.e., a reviewer talking to colleagues about a manuscript he/she is reviewing, using or sharing information from this manuscript)
  • Reviewer directing apprentice to review a manuscript (i.e., instead of the assigned reviewer reading and evaluating the manuscript)
  • Editor favoring certain authors (i.e., the editor chooses reviewers he/she knows will be receptive to the manuscript)
  • Editor as author in same journal (i.e., raising questions about the validity of the anonymous review process)
  • Review of a book written by the journal’s editor (i.e., raising questions about the credibility and objectivity of the journal’s book reviews)

Reviewers and editors have several ethical obligations, including to the study’s participants, to make sure the contribution of the participants to the study is valued and respected with conscientious, principled, scrupulous consideration of the submitted manuscript. All of a researcher’s efforts to sustain the privacy and humanity of his/her participants is for naught if reviewers and editors act without integrity in their evaluation of a manuscript.

Ethical Review Practices

To achieve such ethical behavior in the reviewing and reporting/publishing of research results, reviewers and editors must:

  • Accept for review only manuscripts on subjects of pertinent expertise that offer no conflict of interest
  • Give a manuscript a conscientious reading in a timely manner (i.e., usually 30 to 60 days)
  • Offer constructive comments to the author about how to revise (i.e., derogatory and dismissive comments make neither the manuscript nor the researcher better and thus contribute little or nothing to the discipline but a hostile environment)
  • Maintain confidentiality about the review process of a manuscript, never discussing the nature or number of revisions or the comments and corrections offered
  • Maintain confidentiality about the information in a manuscript, neither using nor sharing this information until it is published
  • Report possible ethical violations (e.g., plagiarism, fabrication, duplicate submission)

For a detailed list of reviewer responsibilities, check the COPE guidelines at publicationethics.org/resources/guidelines-new/cope-ethical-guidelines-peer-reviewers.

Readers

The third wheel of the research ethics tricycle consists of the readers. They may be considered the “steering wheel” because it is their interpretation, acceptance or rejection, and possible distribution of the results that govern where the research results are going next. This could be to the credentialed body of the knowledge within a discipline, back to the research community for replication or further study, or to the boneyard of discredited or irrelevant research.

We, as the readers of research, have important ethical responsibilities to the discipline. We must be meticulous about accuracy in the interpretation and distribution of research findings. We must neither minimize nor exaggerate a study’s results but recognize and acknowledge the limits on reliability and validity. We do no service to the discipline if we characterize implications as conclusions or generalize widely from narrow pilot projects, as illustrated in the above discussion of the survey on Helvetica versus Times New Roman typefaces. We must resist the temptation to simplify research findings in the hurried pursuit of practical applications. A failure to be cautious puts practice on a fragile foundation, generates misguided claims, and makes us look impulsive instead of innovative—superstitious instead of scientific. All of these ethical factors are important for readers to fulfill their vital role in ensuring the integrity of research and the publication of results.

Conclusions

In sum, from test tube to test report, an ethical research project represents honest, accurate, and objective study of a subject of significance to the discipline and potential social benefit. The conclusions or preliminary findings are consistent with the data gathered in research. The results are presented clearly and without bias in an appropriate forum using language and statistics the audience can understand, filtered and refined by expert reviewers and editors. And the reader applies sound judgment in legitimately interpreting and conveying the results to others.

If any one of the three wheels of the research ethics tricycle breaks loose (biased or sloppy researcher, prejudiced or unfair reviewer or editor, impulsive and judgmental reader), the tricycle wobbles and crashes.

If all three wheels are turning smoothly, the tricycle reaches its destination—honest, responsible research that forms a trusted foundation for further exploration.

SAM DRAGGA (sam.dragga@ttu.edu) is Editor-in-Chief of STC’s quarterly research journal, Technical Communication. He is coauthor (with Elizabeth Tebeaux) of Essentials of Technical Communication, published by Oxford University Press. He has also written a score of journal articles, two of which were co-authored with Dan Voss—“Cruel Pies: The Inhumanity of Technical Illustrations” (2001) and “Hiding Humanity: Verbal and Visual Ethics in Accident Reports” (2003). He is Professor Emeritus of Technical Communication at Texas Tech University.

DAN VOSS (danvoss999@gmail.com) is a “retired” but still active proposal specialist for Lockheed Martin who also provides industry training workshops in business and technical communication. An STC Fellow, Dan is recognized for his publications and presentations on diverse subjects at STC’s international conference and was the recipient of the President’s Award for his efforts on student outreach. With Lori Allen, he coauthored Ethics in Technical Communication: Shades of Gray, published in 1998—for which he became the only non-engineer to receive Lockheed Martin’s coveted Author-of-the-Year recognition. He has coauthored four research articles for STC’s Technical Communication as well as four articles for Intercom. Dan and Bethany Aguad, then a student at UCF, co-managed STC’s student outreach and mentoring initiative from 2012–2014 and presented at Leadership Day at two Summits. They also coauthored Chapter 5, “Teaching the Ethics of Intercultural Communication,” in the anthology of research articles Teaching and Training for Global Engineering, edited by Kirk St.Amant and Madelyn Flammia, published in 2017, and already nominated for an award.

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