20 Dec 2017

Research ethics essential to the integrity and legitimacy of research

Created in the early 1990s, the Norwegian national committee system for research ethics made Norway an international leader in the field. CMI Senior Researcher Ivar Kolstad has recently been appointed vice chairman of the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH).

In 2014, the news that Facebook had been conducting experiments on their users without their knowledge caused an uproar. And understandably so, getting the informed consent of research subjects is the general rule in research ethics. Deviating from this rule requires solid arguments of high social and scientific value of a project, and a lack of alternative approaches to generate the same type of knowledge. The pioneering study of two University of Chicago and MIT economists who sent fake CVs to employers to document the extent of discrimination in the hiring process, is an example of a project that meets this criterion. Forgoing informed consent to be able to analyze actual labour market discrimination can be justifiable, doing so to optimize the news feed of internet users is not.

These are examples of the issues and dilemmas that the National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and the Humanities (NESH) tries to address. First established in 1990, NESH has an advisory role. It assesses ethical aspects of projects submitted by researchers or research institutions, or by the Norwegian Centre for Research Data and the Norwegian Data Protection Agency. Importantly, the committee has created a set of guidelines for research ethics, which it continues to update and develop to reflect new challenges that arise. The committee also gives advice on relevant government policies, and raises awareness of research ethical norms through seminars and debates.

- Taking ethical issues seriously is essential to the integrity and legitimacy of research, says CMI Senior Researcher Ivar Kolstad who has recently been appointed vice chairman of NESH for the coming four year period. – The dedication of most researchers to their work is a thing to be admired. However, researchers and research institutions may have an incentive to overstate the importance of their work relative to the burdens imposed on research subjects. This is one reason an independent committee on research ethics can play an important role.

 With new national and EU legislation coming into effect, these are interesting times for research ethics in Norway and internationally. Technological change and methodological development also create new challenges for ethics in research.

-For instance, it can be challenging to foresee the full implications of big data, of accessing and analyzing minute data on individual behaviour, says Kolstad.

He looks forward to the opportunity the NESH appointment presents to follow and shape the debate on these issues in the years to come.