Overview of Ethical Issues in Scientific Research

Instructor: Adrianne Baron

Adrianne has taught high school and college biology and has a master's degree in cancer biology.

Ethical issues abound in the research field, and it's not as difficult as one might think for a researcher to make a moral mistake. This lesson outlines some of those tricky situations and gives a general guide as to how scientists make proper ethical decisions.

Scientific Research

We are enjoying many results of scientific research, which is essentially scientific studies done to improve our lives. All you have to do is look at how long we are living now versus how long our ancestors lived 300 years ago. A lot of scientific research has been geared toward fighting diseases and prolonging our lives. That is not the only area where scientific research has impacted us though.

You are using some type of computer to read this lesson. Computers, tablets, phones, and readers also came into being thanks to scientific research. Now, you can find out almost anything you want to know in seconds by searching on the internet, which is also an advancement from scientific research.

Ethical Issues

Every now and again, scientific research does not give us a good outcome. This usually only occurs when scientists violate the ethics governing scientific research. Ethics refers to moral guidelines that distinguish what is right and wrong. Ethical scientific research must be conducted in a manner that makes it beneficial rather than harmful to us, other organisms, and our earth.


One ethical issue that scientists have to address when they are ready to begin a new research project is whether or not it is in the best interest of humanity. Whatever they are going to research needs to be something beneficial and not harmful to us as a whole. In order to address this ethical issue, scientists have to be in tune with what is going on with people. Doing research to figure out a way to prevent a disease that has never existed, and is not expected to, is rather pointless, but researching a way to prevent a disease such as Alzheimer's is beneficial.

The other ethical concern regarding humanity has to do with how the research is conducted. Scientists have to find a way of testing whatever they are researching that causes the least amount of harm possible. This means taking every precaution necessary to ensure the safety of people and other organisms during the experiments. Most experimentation begins with cells, then progresses to small animals, then to larger animals or humans.

Skipping the process of finding out the possible bad outcomes prior to testing in humans would be a serious ethical issue, as would not finding out what bad outcomes may happen at the cell level before testing on animals. All experiments have to be designed in such a way that they are effective as well as safe. This includes making sure diseases, pieces of DNA, and harmful substances are handled correctly to minimize the chance of them being leaked into the public or any resource the public uses.


Most of us are taught from a young age that it is best to tell the truth. But perhaps somewhere around the teenage years, we experience some of the 'benefits' from not being truthful. We get to go somewhere we shouldn't be going or do something we shouldn't be doing. It may seem fun at first, but when our lies are discovered, the end result isn't quite as exciting. We then return to telling the truth.

Some scientists, unfortunately, go through that same ethical learning process. It is tempting to lie about what they are researching, the possible harm from the research project, and even the outcomes of the research in order to get ahead or make more money. This is because there are many scientists in this world and they all require the same things to be successful: money to fund research, and recognition for their research. These two needs are intertwined: money allows the research to happen, which, when successful, brings recognition, which brings more money for research, and so on.

It can be very tempting to say whatever needs to be said in order to get what is needed. But there are ramifications for scientists who are being dishonest. If nothing else, their work is no longer credible and the funding stops.

Lying affects more than just the scientist's credibility, however. For example, if test subjects were lied to about the study, they may suffer from things done to them in the process without their knowledge. Scientists have an obligation to let research volunteers know exactly what is being done during an experiment. Scientists also have to explain to an ethics board what they do to any animals that they are experimenting on.

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