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Annual Review of Ethics (Case Studies)

What are Research Ethics Cases?

For additional information, please visit Resources for Research Ethics Education

Research Ethics Cases are a tool for discussing scientific integrity. Cases are designed to confront the readers with a specific problem that does not lend itself to easy answers. By providing a focus for discussion, cases help staff involved in research to define or refine their own standards, to appreciate alternative approaches to identifying and resolving ethical problems, and to develop skills for dealing with hard problems on their own.

Research Ethics Cases for Use by the NIH Community

For Facilitators Leading Case Discussion

For the sake of time and clarity of purpose, it is essential that one individual have responsibility for leading the group discussion. As a minimum, this responsibility should include:

  1. Reading the case aloud.
  2. Defining, and re-defining as needed, the questions to be answered.
  3. Encouraging discussion that is "on topic".
  4. Discouraging discussion that is "off topic".
  5. Keeping the pace of discussion appropriate to the time available.
  6. Eliciting contributions from all members of the discussion group.
  7. Summarizing both majority and minority opinions at the end of the discussion.

How Should Cases be Analyzed?

Many of the skills necessary to analyze case studies can become tools for responding to real world problems. Cases, like the real world, contain uncertainties and ambiguities. Readers are encouraged to identify key issues, make assumptions as needed, and articulate options for resolution. In addition to the specific questions accompanying each case, readers should consider the following questions:

  1. Who are the affected parties (individuals, institutions, a field, society) in this situation?
  2. What interest(s) (material, financial, ethical, other) does each party have in the situation? Which interests are in conflict?
  3. Were the actions taken by each of the affected parties acceptable (ethical, legal, moral, or common sense)? If not, are there circumstances under which those actions would have been acceptable? Who should impose what sanction(s)?
  4. What other courses of action are open to each of the affected parties? What is the likely outcome of each course of action?
  5. For each party involved, what course of action would you take, and why?
  6. What actions could have been taken to avoid the conflict?

Is There a Right Answer?

Acceptable Solutions

Most problems will have several acceptable solutions or answers, but it will not always be the case that a perfect solution can be found. At times, even the best solution will still have some unsatisfactory consequences.

Unacceptable Solutions

While more than one acceptable solution may be possible, not all solutions are acceptable. For example, obvious violations of specific rules and regulations or of generally accepted standards of conduct would typically be unacceptable. However, it is also plausible that blind adherence to accepted rules or standards would sometimes be an unacceptable course of action.

Ethical Decision-Making

It should be noted that ethical decision-making is a process rather than a specific correct answer. In this sense, unethical behavior is defined by a failure to engage in the process of ethical decision-making. It is always unacceptable to have made no reasonable attempt to define a consistent and defensible basis for conduct.


The page was last updated on Friday, February 24, 2017 - 11:13am