Blog 8 – Citation of Unethical Studies

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.

2 thoughts on “Blog 8 – Citation of Unethical Studies

  1. Because the methods employed are so horrendous, it is of course undesirable to want to appear to be condoning of them by citing the studies. But I am going to suggest that perhaps by citing the studies in the spirit of improving the lives of others, that one look at it as honoring those whose lives are ruined/destroyed by the heinous nature of how the data was collected. I think that if I suffered or my children suffered because someone used such unethical ways to obtain the data, I would at least want our suffering to not be in vain – that something useful for others come out of it.

  2. First I would like to thank you for discussing this matter. I attended earlier this semester the IRB workshop by David More, I have to say that I couldn’t sleep for 2 days after this presentation from imagining how much pain and suffer have these “human test subject” have gone through. His presentation discussed many cases of experiments and research that was unethical and considered in our time, and in all time a crime, such as surgery without anesthesia, studying survival time Vs blood loss, he stated that 10,000 Chinese civilians were used & killed at Unit 731. He discussed the Nazi doctors and the Nuremberg Code (I guess this is what you are talking about in you post). After these doctors war crimes tribunal concluded, protection of Human Subjects In medical and non medical Experiments was issued. Cold war research included body irradiation, Radium injection and more. There are a lot of CRIMES done in history for science, these all were the reason for the issue of strict rules that protect human subjects. There are recent rules about inappropriate language to ensure psychological protection of human subject. So the good news that such research will (hopefully)never happen again Finally it can’t be denied that many of these researches are still very beneficial in our times.

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