One thorny issue that we spent some time in class discussing, and which I’d like to discuss further here, is the ethical obligation of a scientist when considering whether to cite a study with unethical data collection methods. For the purpose of this discussion, we will take the case where the study is not compromised in a way that affects its scientific value, but was carried out in ways that are considered morally wrong. Is it therefore wrong to cite this work? In a paper published in the 1980s, the author discusses whether some of the most notoriously unethical studies in history, conducted by Nazi doctors on prisoners, have scientific value, and if it is unethical to use these data for future research. Even in the case of these widely condemned experiments, opinions were mixed. For example, Nazi hypothermia research has informed the design of some cold-weather gear, saving lives and making the case that Nazi data should not be entirely disregarded. However, others argue that any citation of these data implies acceptance of the methods used to collect it. Putting the extreme case of the Nazi data aside, much of the data collected in the past was collected in ways that would not be allowed today. Several of the most famous psychological experiments taught at universities would never be allowed to take place now. In my own research, as I mentioned in class, there are examples of studies where infants were knowingly given lead-containing formula in a well-controlled study in order to determine the relationship between lead in the diet and blood lead levels. While studies like this one are considered unethical by today’s standards, the data collected demonstrate unambiguously the link between dietary lead and increases in blood lead levels, and can inform lead in water regulations. If these data were thrown out as “unethical,” valuable information would be lost.
I would love to hear from YOU, the reader about this issue! Please let me know your thoughts on the citation of unethical work, and whether you know of any examples of this in your own field.