Background to the Ethics Portal

Background to the Ethics Portal

The main objective:

  • An Internet portal on ethics and research ethics has been created as a teaching and supervision resource for staff and students/ PhD candidates at NTNU.
  • The ethics portal is based on 10 focus points intended for three different user groups:
    - Novices / getting started
    - Users with a focus on particular problems or disciplines
    - Users with a specialized interest in ethics (networks, events, teaching, research, journals, people, news, links, and more)
  • The web pages of the Programme for Applied Ethics, easily accessible from the Ethics Portal, will be especially useful to the second, and in particular the third group of users.The focus points are based on specific cases from NTNU, and developed with reference to relevant regulations and other information resources.
  • The task of developing the Ethics Portal has been assigned to the Programme for Applied Ethics

Two working groups have been involved. The first was a committee established by the University Central Research Committee through Astrid Lægreid in the autumn of 2006. From the autumn of 2008, a new group established by the director of the human resources division continued work on the material. Personnel matters were now included in the content. The Programme for Applied Ethics, represented by May Thorseth, has had the primary responsibility for the work.

The result has a multidisciplinary and inter-faculty foundation, with contributions from professors/heads of departments, the doctoral candidates' organization DION, heads of sections, safety representatives, NTNU's legal adviser, vice-deans and pro-rectors. Heads of sections and DION have contributed in interviews, while the others have either been included in the working groups or as pilot testers. Those involved have given their consent for use of the cases and comments in anonymized form.

Ethical reasons for the Ethics Portal
In an ideal world we would not need research ethics — all researchers would understand the need for compliance with certain standards, such as specifying the source of references, giving credit to co-workers, being open about sources of knowledge, obtaining consent from research subjects, etc. Identifying research ethics as a separate field is an acknowledgement that researchers do not live in an ideal world (even if Plato believed that philosophers could do so). There are two ways of looking at this: (1) It is regrettable that researchers do not act in line with their ideals, and must therefore submit to the introduction of external rules for their own activities. (2) It is good that researchers live in a world adapted to human reality, and do not blindly trust that no one makes mistakes.

Our point of departure is that it is good for researchers to have an honest recognition of their fallibility. Then it is also reassuring to know that potential whistle-blowers and others can step in if necessary. We believe that, most of the time, the great majority of researchers do not make significant mistakes, and that most have a well-trained alarm system to alert them when they venture on to uncertain ground. They are not born with this alarm system; they acquire it through social and academic training during their period of study and subsequent recruitment phases.

When the alarm does not sound automatically
In other words, there is a need to focus on some key points in the plethora of written and unwritten rules for good research. The ethical perspective is an important aspect of good research in general. Good research means research of high quality. There are many criteria for evaluating the quality of research, but there is no invariable standard that applies in the same way to every subject. At the national level plan we have committees for research ethics in various disciplines, and at the regional/local level there are regional committees for evaluating research projects in medicine and health disciplines, but not for all subjects at this stage.

Brief reflection on the intersection between law, ethics and morals
The issue of high quality in research requires legal guidelines, and we have many of those. So many that researchers come to perceive them as a problem, both because it is difficult to keep track of them all, and because there are ethical and moral questions that cannot be answered exclusively by referring to the law. The most important issue, however, is: How to get researchers to produce qualitatively good research on the basis of the right motivation? This question directs a critical spotlight on the growing tendency toward external control without an inner sense of justice. An example is the difference between refraining from dishonesty because it carries penalties if you are discovered, and because it conflicts with the inherent research ethos of building up knowledge.