Issues in Ethics: Ethics in Research and Scholarly Activity
About This Document
Published 2008. This Issues in Ethics statement is a revision of Ethics in Research and Professional Practice (2002). The Board of Ethics reviews Issues in Ethics statements periodically to ensure that they meet the needs of the professions and are consistent with ASHA policies.
Issues in Ethics Statements: Definition
From time to time, the Board of Ethics determines that members and certificate holders can benefit from additional analysis and instruction concerning a specific issue of ethical conduct. Issues in Ethics statements are intended to heighten sensitivity and increase awareness. They are illustrative of the Code of Ethics and intended to promote thoughtful consideration of ethical issues. They may assist members and certificate holders in engaging in self-guided ethical decision making. These statements do not absolutely prohibit or require specified activity. While the facts and circumstances surrounding a matter of concern will determine whether the activity is ethical, the basic premise of honesty is bedrock: honesty with clients, honesty in diagnosis/prognoses, honesty in billing, honesty in written work and in enforcing ethical guidelines.
Although clinical practice is the primary professional activity of the great majority of Association members, there is no doubt that scholarly activities (e.g., research or grant writing) also constitute a major professional focus for many. For example, year-end data for 2006 indicated that 1,684 ASHA members considered research to be their primary or secondary employment activity. The professional inclusion of scholarship is also clear in the Association's activities, such as conventions and publication of peer-reviewed journals. It is therefore fitting that the Association's Code of Ethics provide guidance when members and other holders of the Certificates of Clinical Competence engage in research and other scholarly work.
The increased inclusion of scholarship within the Association and within members' activities has necessitated change in the Code of Ethics, such that research and scholarship are more clearly recognized. As a result, the current (2003) Code contains 14 specific references to research or scholarship; by comparison, the previous (2001) Code contained only 5. Therefore, this Issues in Ethics statement is provided to assist readers in recognizing the integration of scholarship into the Code and interpreting the Code's intent in this regard.
As noted above, the current Code of Ethics contains 14 specific references to research. Some other Principles and Rules will show no specific mention of research. However, it is the opinion of the Board of Ethics that those bound by the Code should regard its precepts broadly. That is, even when there is not a specific reference to research or scholarship, whenever possible, the Code should be viewed as extending to those areas.
Themes and Examples in the Code of Ethics
The Code may be considered to approach research and scholarship via three main themes: (a) ethical treatment of research participants, (b) competence, and (c) honesty.
The theme of ethical treatment of research participants is included at the very outset of the Code, as Principle I enjoins us to “hold paramount the welfare of … participants in research and scholarly activities….” We may draw some clarification from the Belmont Report on ethical treatment of research participants (National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, 1979; http://ohsr.od.nih.gov/guidelines/belmont.html). That report lists three basic ethical principles: (a) respect for persons (viewing individuals as autonomous and protecting those with reduced autonomy), (b) beneficence (the effort to secure the well-being of participants), and (c) justice (the equitable application of research benefits). The theme of ethical treatment is also refined in several ways within the Code of Ethics. We are required, for example, to avoid discrimination in conducting research (Principle I, Rule C). Such discrimination might come about, for example, if researchers omit certain populations from study or include some populations only because they are readily available. We must inform research participants of the possible effects of our research (Principle I, Rule F). We must obtain their informed consent (Principle I, Rule N). The Belmont Report defines informed consent as including adequate information and ensuring participants' comprehension and “voluntariness.” In addition, we must maintain the confidentiality of research participants (Principle I, Rule L).
Principle of Ethics I, Rule A, requires that we provide all services competently; this is echoed in Principle II, requiring us to “achieve and maintain the highest level of professional competence.” There is every reason to include research and other scholarly activities in this requirement of competence. Scholars should continually hone research and writing skills. This theme, too, is further refined. Principle I, Rule G, requires us to “evaluate the effectiveness of services rendered.” Although research is not specifically mentioned in this rule, an inclusive interpretation should easily encompass evaluating the outcomes of research, especially if that research has potential clinical application. Principle I, Rule K, is specific in requiring that we “maintain and appropriately secure records of … research and scholarly activity.…” Finally, the theme of competence is amplified by requiring that we engage in activities “within the scope of [our] competence” (Principle II, Rule B) and not permit staff members to “… conduct research activities that exceed the staff member's competence…” (Principle II, Rule E).
Acting honestly is at the core of any code of ethics, and ASHA's Code is no exception. The Code contains several points of guidance regarding honesty for those who wish to engage in research and scholarship. We must avoid misrepresentation of research generally (Principle I, Rule M; Principle III, Rule D; Principle IV, Rule B). We must not misrepresent the credentials of research assistants (Principle I, Rule D). We must represent accurately the contributions of various people to the scholarly process (Principle III, Rule A; Principle IV, Rule D; Principle IV, Rule E). Finally, members have an obligation to represent research and scholarly activity accurately and clearly to the public as well as the professional community. Care should be given to ensure that the public fully understands the information presented (Principle III, Rule E; Principle III, Rule F).
Discussion: Some Challenges
As in other professional practices, the ethical practice of research and scholarship may be challenged in some circumstances. At such times, the Code of Ethics can provide guidance.
One such challenge is in treating human and animal research participants ethically. Those who work in universities or other research centers will generally have the benefit of an institutional review board (IRB) to approve research proposals so that there is institutional assurance of at least a plan for ethical treatment of participants. Those in other settings who wish to engage in scholarship, and who do not have the benefit of an IRB, need to develop their plans for scholarship without such oversight, which may be more difficult. Ultimately, though, we all must provide our own oversight for the actual conduct of research and scholarship, necessitating vigilance in order to adhere to ethical principles. The Code gives several examples of ways in which participants should be treated, and those are noted in Principle I, Rules C, F, L, and N. The temptation to treat data dishonestly is often present, as media reports of scientific misconduct attest. Some perceived advantages of data mistreatment include having a better outcome for funded research or a greater likelihood of having a scholarly work accepted for publication. Such conduct is unethical, and, ultimately, less valuable, both to the researcher and to the public. The Code provides guidance for honesty in many of its principles and rules.
A third challenge to ethical conduct of research and scholarship is conflict of interest, clearly prohibited in Principle III, Rule B, which states, “Individuals shall not participate in professional activities that constitute a conflict of interest.” Conflicts of interest may arise in several situations. Many involve the mistreatment of data, such as tampering with data to prove the worth of a proprietary product or to please a research sponsor, such as a private corporation. Other conflicts may arise when, for example, one is offered a substantial payment to complete research that one is not qualified to carry out.
The above scenarios are only a few examples of ethical challenges. Many more may arise, and those individuals bound by the Code should remain alert to their possibility and should consult the Code for appropriate courses of action.
The Code of Ethics is replete with both explicit and implied references to research and scholarship. Those who are bound by the Code should consider research and scholarship as an integral professional activity, and should realize that the Code offers guidance for the ethical discharge of those professional activities. Those bound by the Code should also realize that challenges to ethical conduct will arise. Those we serve professionally, whose welfare we hold paramount, including those who benefit by our scholarship, are best served by adherence to the Code's principles and rules.