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Thoughts of a Postbac logoIn the fall of 2021, my lab met over Zoom to complete our annual ethics training. As we signed on for the meeting, I was less than eager to talk through the fictional scenarios that had been provided to us on an early Friday morning. It felt like another mundane task that needed to be checked off our to-do lists. To my surprise, though, the conversations that emerged from this training were interesting. As my fellow lab members shared concerns and anecdotes relating to research ethics, I realized how relevant the training is to my own work. I’d never really thought about the integrity of primary data, or the tensions that can arise from determining authorship, until I participated in this conversation. This experience opened my eyes to the value of exploring ethical ideas, both new and familiar, in preparing for a successful career in research.

Ethical standards ensure that we can work in a safe, productive field of research that impacts public health positively. It’s important that we take this role seriously. There are steps that individuals should take if they are committed to becoming ethical researchers, which begin at learning how ethics are already influencing research.

Become familiar with existing ethical standards

Ethical standards exist within biomedical research for a reason, and it’s important that we are aware of these expectations. The best way to avoid unethical behavior in our work is by knowing what the established standards are. This is straightforward and easy to accomplish, simply by listening to the guidance that is provided to us.

During our ethics training, my lab discussed the tricky matter of determining authorship in scientific papers. A member of my lab shared that in previous labs they worked in, they were exposed to how disappointing these decisions can be when collaborators have differing expectations. This colleague advised that researchers should always discuss the matter of authorship for a given project at the beginning of work, rather than the end, to avoid misunderstandings and tensions later.

As a trainee, I had yet to encounter these decisions or the conflict that can arise about authorship at the time of this meeting. If anything, I saw such decisions as a matter that was awkward to discuss and should be delayed until a paper is written. Hearing this advice exposed me to the value of establishing expectations at the onset of research and ensuring that all collaborators have the same understanding of such expectations.

This same idea can be extended to other expectations in research, including ethical ones. If a researcher is unsure of the ethical standards that exist in their work, they should ensure that they become familiar with these practices before conducting such work. Trainings and lectures provide a means to learn about many of the ethical standards that already exist in different fields of research. Researchers can also promote ethical work by discussing such matters with their collaborators and trainees, to ensure that everyone is following the same expectations. It’s hard to uphold ethical standards if you don’t know what they are.

Know the rationale behind ethical standards

In addition to familiarizing oneself with ethical standards, it’s equally important that we understand the rationale behind these ideas. In a truly scientific nature, it’s okay, and should be encouraged, for researchers to ask why certain ethical standards exist in the first place. This is not to say that one should be distrusting, but rather that understanding the rationale behind ethical ideas can solidify one’s understanding of their importance. It’s very easy to fall into a habit of thinking “I should be doing x, but it’s okay if I don’t this time.” Researchers can become more susceptible to this sort of thinking when facing pressure to produce results.

The annual training discussed by my lab was titled “Under Pressure.” This theme focused on the idea that conducting research is often accompanied by many external pressures. The origin of these pressures could be anything from the expectations of an individual’s supervisor to suggestive language from a reviewer. When many sources of pressure are added together, it can lead a researcher to feel as though corners need to be cut to achieve a certain goal and appease others (or their own expectations). This theme sheds light on the idea that researchers sometimes feel justified to ignore ethical standards in conducting their own research.

For example, an individual might feel inclined to exclude specific results or details from a study if the work doesn’t support a paper’s overall argument. Although research is expected to be reported honestly and fully, this standard of transparency could be interpreted as more of a suggestion than a requirement. If an individual, however, is informed on the reproducibility crisis that already exists within scientific research, this expectation might seem like less of an option.

Understanding the rationale behind ethical standards can keep researchers honest about how closely they should follow ethical guidelines. This practice also encourages individuals to think more deeply about the broader implications of their work.

Think actively about the impact of research

Conducting research that relates to public health is both exciting and daunting because of the implications that one’s work can have on human beings. I can’t imagine that any biomedical researcher is interested in producing work that negatively impacts society. So, in addition to considering the ethics of how we conduct research, equally important are the ethical whys and whats of biomedical research: why is producing a given technology or drug beneficial; why is it a good idea to study a given condition; what do we hope to accomplish through this project.

These questions are broader and more complicated, but nonetheless need to be considered. This is not to suggest that trainees or researchers should have the answers to these questions. Instead, these individuals should simply commit to addressing these questions and attempt to develop their own perspectives. Practicing critical thinking and communication skills in relation to ethics can make this more approachable over time. Researchers need to be prepared to tackle broad ethical concerns and questions as they arise.

Engage with new ethical challenges

Although many ethical standards have already been established in biomedical research, new knowledge and technologies continue to develop. With the advancement of scientific discovery, our understanding of ethical practices and responsibilities will need to evolve as well. Taking advantage of the opportunity to actively engage with these topics now can prepare researchers for this task. Trainees are in a particularly opportune position to start practicing this engagement, since they may inherit the responsibility of leading these conversations in the future. The NIH provides a supportive environment in which this can be accomplished, and researchers should embrace this opportunity.

Our work as biomedical researchers can only benefit from greater ethical considerations. It’s never too early in one’s career to start thinking about the ethics of their work. Trainees should consider ethical training to be an important part of their development as researchers during their time at the NIH. By approaching these ideas with the same commitment that we do to scientific/medical knowledge and skills, we can ensure that we’re capable of engaging with these topics in our own work. It’s important that we take ethical training seriously now, so that we may continue to improve the health and wellbeing of our society in the future.