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I am a second year PhD student at a university. My supervisor asked me to do a research collaboration with a professor from another university.

When I was reading about his research, I already found some of his research methods quite debatable and close to unethical. Nevertheless, I agreed to do a collaboration. I gave him the benefit of the doubt and maybe he could explain to me why certain research methods look unethical at first but when you look at it from another perspective the method is actually fine.

Of course, after some time of collaboration it turned out that we simply have different views on what is ethical research and what is not.

How can I deal with such a situation? Am I actually responsible for the ethical judgement of my research as a PhD student?

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    The research you consider "unethical" is not illegal, and not prohibited by his or your university? You are rather vague about this.
    – GEdgar
    Commented May 26 at 13:03
  • Yes. It is completely legal. And even under scientific standards it is totally acceptable. My problem is, it includes experiments with humans which I don't feel qualified for (I studied in STEM field). I fear that the research is and will be used to manipulate people (even though it might be considered very slight manipulation in this case) Also, I have not comletely decided yet for myself if experiments that include humans are acceptable from my point of view. Generally, I come from a believe where this is not okay. So, I really have ethical concerns in this case.
    – Tho Re
    Commented May 26 at 17:33
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    Lots of research that does not involve humans can be used to manipulate people. Humans are the only animals that can consent to being involved in research. Not feeling qualified to participate in research is not the same as the research being unethical.
    – Bryan Krause
    Commented May 26 at 22:12
  • ‘How can I deal with such a situation?’ Do you mean How do I myself cope with this situation? or How do I make him see the error of his ways? or something else? Commented May 26 at 23:56
  • @Aruralreader Actually it is more: Has anybody encountered something similar and if yes, how did he or she react in that situation?
    – Tho Re
    Commented May 27 at 13:45

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Part of being a researcher is figuring out which collaborators you're compatible with, and which you're not. A lack of compatibility could be for any number of reasons, including taste in research problems, work habits, personality, etc. When you find out that you are not compatible with someone, it's best to politely end the working relationship and devote your energy to other research, perhaps with other co-authors.

How can I deal with such a situation? Am I actually responsible for the ethical judgement of my research as a PhD student?

Yes, absolutely you are. This is what ethics is all about. If you feel this collaboration would lead to research that you would not want to have your name on, for ethical reasons, then you should stop. The PhD is all about learning how to be a researcher and addressing ethical questions is part of that.

In your case, things are slightly more complicated because your advisor suggested this collaboration. It seems to me that the next step is to talk to your advisor. You can explain your concerns, get his/her feedback, and plan next steps. You might find out that your advisor also has different views from you about what is/not ethical. Or, if your advisor sees your point of view, perhaps they can suggest another collaborator for you.

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By way of context, I'm a research degree coordinator, a research ethics advisor and research integrity advisor at my institution (Australia). So I feel it's fair to say that I have a good grip on research ethics especially as they pertain to PhD candidates. Two things strike me in your post. First, you essentially accuse an academic of unethical practices, which is a serious thing to do. You entered into the collaboration hoping this person would explain themselves and their approach to you. Did you ask them directly about their approach? From your post it seems you just expected them to alay your concerns. This isn't how research collaborations work. They work through open and respectful dialogue. As another person has posted you need to speak with your collaborators. Second, you conclude your post by asking if you are 'actually responsible' for the ethics of your PhD research. Seriously? You have to ask this as a 2nd year PhD candidate? I find this shocking and it suggests that you don't have a clear understanding of ethical responsibilities. Not your own and given this it's highly unlikely that you are able to assess the ethics of another researcher. My advice is to undertake training in research ethics. All the best.

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  • The "actually responsible" question might not be as bad as it looks. The research is "completely legal ... and even by scientific standards ... completely acceptable" (see OP's first comment). The OP's understanding of ethics might be so strict that no one else would see a problem. Commented May 31 at 0:01
  • @AndreasBlass AndreasBlass Also, there are some (sub)disciplines which just don't do research with human or animal subjects or tissues, and one could plausibly get through an entire academic career without ever encountering an ethics committee/IRB approval process: it's possible all of OP's previous experience is in one of those (sub)disciplines. Commented May 31 at 18:26
  • @AndreasBlass I would argue that even if no one else sees a problem, if a researcher themselves is convinced the work is unethical, then it would be unethical for that person to participate. But that's really more of a philosophical question. Commented Jun 2 at 10:47
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Based on one of your responses it seems you confuse method and topic. Yes it would be unethical to harm participants in your study sample but an ethics committee should check that. Yes it is unethical to create fake data or manipulate data to show non existing effects.

However from your response before it seems your doubts are about the ethics of possible application and not about the methods at all. As others have said, almost all science can be used to manipulate people (and health campaigns for example do so for good reasons). If this is indeed the concern you have, you enter into topic/research question choice. This is a domain where academic freedom is (and should be);substantial. You are free to choose a topic, and not to choose it if a topic does not align with your personal values. This has nothing to do with research ethics (in almost all cases). Accusing another academic of unethical behaviour for this reason is generally not done (and can in fact be considered unethical)

So carefully think over your issue. Is it concern about research ethic by mistreating participants in the study or data. In that case ask advice of an ethics committee. Otherwise it is unlikely an ethics issue at all (and you have accused your collaborator unfairly)

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From what I understood from the comments, the research is actually not unethical by any existing official standards, but only in respect to the OP's own ethical system. In other words, it is private matter, and must be dealt as such, IMHO.

  • One option is making peace with it for the time being and changing collaborators, research subject or field when the first opportunity to do so presents.
  • If it is too urgent and really difficult to live with - breaking collaboration or quitting might be in order.

What I would not recommend is leading a public crusade against these practices - which is likely to get ugly, and poses lots of ethical issues in itself (who are you to judge? Is militancy ethical?)

Finally, accepting that the world is not perfect, that there is a lot of ugly stuff going on, that we are sometimes powerless with it, and that in many cases we take part in doing ugly stuff or indirectly benefit from it - all this is a part of getting older and more mature. Hopefully, living through this personal conflict would make you wiser (without making you cynical.)

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