I was just wondering about this specific scenario.

Say someone was researching nature vs. nurture, but his experiments involved keeping babies in a controlled environment for the first 10 years of their life. His research is secret and he has ways to smuggle children for his research (don't ask how).

After 15 years, he publishes a paper and confirms that there is a set amount of characteristics that can be transferred via genes.

What would become of the researcher and his research? Will the researcher be jailed, but the research results recognized?

This question is about unethical research in general, not just ones involving human subjects.

P.S. No babies were harmed in the making of this post

  • 10
    Studies involving human subjects must be approved by an institutional review board before it is undertaken, otherwise most journals won't accept it.
    – Drecate
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 0:55
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    @Drecate So will the world just ignore the results? Also, to others as well, this is for all unethical research in general, not just ones regarding human subjects. Will edit that to my question. Thanks!
    – Zaenille
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 1:08
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    This is an awfully specific scenario. Have you or someone you know been abducting babies? As to the results, they will be called into question due to the ethics of the study itself. Even if true, the lack of ethics used in the process is likely to stain the use drastically.
    – Compass
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 1:19
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    There's also the question of reproducibility: where on earth will you find a second evil scientist who also happens to share research interests with the first? Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:21
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    @JacobKrall, sadly, Auswitz, Dachau and Mauthausen-Gusen in Nazi Germany, Unit 731 and 8604 in Imperial Japan, the Kamera in the Soviet Union, and even Fort Detrick in the United States and Porton Down in the United Kingdom.... Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 17:48

6 Answers 6


Unfortunately, history has already forced this question upon us, and the answers are not entirely clear. The Nazis inflicted widespread and breathtakingly horrifying human medical experiments on their victims during the Holocaust. These yielded quite a bit of medical data, that some want to unearth and apply today.

This has ignited quite a bit of debate on the ethics of using this most obviously and supremely unethical research. The science may be dubious as well, given the circumstances under which it was performed. An excellent discussion of the dilemma may be found in the article "The Ethics Of Using Medical Data From Nazi Experiments" by Baruch Cohen. In essence, Cohen argues that in certain extreme cases it may be possible to use the data, but only when accompanied by strong condemnation of the methods and only when it concerns information that is both otherwise impossible to obtain and of life-saving importance.

Nazi medicine is an extreme case, but unfortunately by no means isolated, and the judgement of history and science on these studies contains less uniform condemnation than we might like. The modern consensus, however, seems to be that except in very unusual circumstances, unethical studies should not be rewarded in any way by recognition.

  • 7
    Interesting viewpoint, considering the circumstances under which nearly all scientific progress has been made. Planetary physics was condemned as heretical, but early medical discoveries necessitated means we would today abhor. How should we view, say, the stem-cell debate or the unfortunate circumstances of early HIV/AIDS research? Should we ignore knowledge, and mandate the scientific community, like a judge to a jury, to "disregard that last data" on the grounds that it disagrees with us, though perhaps not with actual observations of the world?
    – zxq9
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 3:40
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    @zxq9 "Don't reward unethical behavior" is worlds away from "disregard that last data." After all, there is usually an ethical way to investigate the same underlying questions.
    – jakebeal
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 3:52
  • Very informative links that show extreme cases of my question. Tagged as answer.
    – Zaenille
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 6:27
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    This is a great answer, but for the most part Nazi war criminals were prosecuted when found (Mengele notably escaped). By contrast, their Japanese counterparts, were able to negotiate immunity from prosecution in exchange for full disclosure of their research. WW2 demonstrates that either direction is possible, both for the research and researcher. Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 17:31
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    @afrazier: isn't the Facebook case basically about the disparity between what's considered ethical when gathering marketing data (almost anything) and what's considered ethical when conducting psychology experiments (almost nothing without informed consent)? It's easy to say "don't use Facebook's research" since it shouldn't be all that difficult for Facebook to conduct similar research ethically. Therefore spurning it has a clear motivational effect on the researcher: if you want scientific recognition do ethical research. Since the OP's mad scientist has been jailed, that's dealt with ;-) Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 20:44

The problem here is that ethics change with time, location, education and religion.

Piotr Migdal in his answer points out that unethical research would never be validated; then I would rebut "What about animal dissection?" It has been banned as unethical by many countries, but many papers still use findings from it.

The same is for much research by Nazis; they are highly unethical NOW, but at the time, for a large number of scientist it was ethical; the well-known Bayer at the time "engaged in human experimentation on Auschwitz prisoners, often with fatal results." Some researchers at "IG Farben" even got a (still valid) Nobel prize "for the discovery of the antibacterial effects of prontosil" and many more.

So I would say that actually ethical studies may be based easily on unethical papers, if those papers are valid. And new unethical papers will need more time to be recognized (and probably the author will be imprisoned) but this is because it will be harder to fact-check the experiment in an ethical way.

  • 6
    Ethics also vary with location.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 22:17
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    It's much less extreme, but psychology is a field full of examples of important studies that would be unethical today - from tests that gave children lifelong phobias, to reckless brain surgery on psychiatric inmates, via all sorts of traumatising, painful or frightening scenarios, electric shocks, untested drugs... Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 16:18
  • Many of these experiments were considered ethical/legal at that times. It is different from things that were and are unethical (and different from ones that were unethical but now are ethical - a rarer case, mostly due to religious restrictions). Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 17:14
  • I disagree that these experiments were considered ethical at that time and location. The reason why people so abhor by Nazi Germany is precisely that a country with a rich heritage of culture, philosophy, (including philosophy of ethics) went so completely over to the dark side. If, say, Mongolians (Ghenghis Khan period) had done the same, people might find it repulsive, but possibly consistent with culture and ethics. People like Mengele could get away with these experiments. The litmus test is whether he could have gone around and tell people publicly about his experiments. Commented Dec 20, 2015 at 19:05

There is a situation in which the exact situation described in the title regularly happened and (most likely) still happens: military research.

There are multiple example of knowledge acquired by the military of several nations and regimes during secret and ethically problematic (euphemism intended) investigations and experiments.

Some of the results from these are a part of our everyday life: aviation (and transportation in general), nuclear fission, some aspects of medicine and surgery, telecommunication, geolocalization, etc.

It seems like the results of these experiments are not disregarded, although contradictory to the example you mentioned, most can also be investigated and validated with ethical approaches.


Supplementing jakebeal's great answer on current research (not - digging old).

...but the research results recognized?

It seems "unlikely", perhaps unless the result is so evident, one cannot ignore it.

First, most journals have statements disallowing publishing unethical research. And without journal publication it is hard to get academic credit.

Second, if you managed to publish it somewhere, I bet that the reaction to its ethics will influence the evaluation of its scientific value. (Look at the reaction to any research results related to emotionally-charged topics. In this case it would be harder, because the reaction would be almost all-negative.)

Third, many people can think that if you are OK with one breach of ethics, you may be OK with breach of scientific procedures, or any other fraud (to support one's view of world, for fame, etc...).

After 15 years, he publishes a paper and confirms that there is a set amount of characteristics that can be transferred via genes.

I bet:

  • if you show that some traits are genetic, it won't be recognized (claiming that you are a racist),
  • if you show that certain genes are responsible for certain traits, this result may be recognized (as it is easy to test it, and in more ethical way).

My personal stance is that all data should be used. (All in all, we use historical data from wars and atrocities, rather than forgetting the history; we can't change the past, but we can change the future.) However, creating lack of incentives to pursue highly unethical research might be worth it.

  • Am I getting downvotes for not providing value or for the very emotionally-induced oversensitivity I was talking about? In particular, what is wrong with my points 1-3? Commented Nov 4, 2014 at 16:48
  • "Third, many people can think that if you are OK with one breach of ethics, you may be OK with breach of scientific procedures". It depends on your character: a common trope in fictions (TV, movies, comics,...) is the scientific that sacrifices/ignores its ethic in his quest for knowledge. People may acknowledge that you are a "pure" scientist.
    – Taladris
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 16:56
  • (not a downvoter), but I think it unlikely that the results are discarded. Maybe they'd be banned in the blatant situation in the question. But considering more everyday ethics, for example Germany has far more restrictive rules about stem cell research (AFAIK it is basically forbidden to produce embryonic stem cells) than, say, the UK. Nevertheless, I don't see any evidence that results obtained by research on embryonic stem cells somewhere else in the world is ignored in Germany. Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 20:18
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    @cbeleites I meant situation where you are unable to publish it anywhere. Sure, if something is OK in China but not in most of world, then a research track likely won't be ignored. But without being able to publish it may be difficult to build reputation (sic), interest, credibility etc. And (as you know) research is rarely done by "one paper". There are examples of other findings, where people had problems to publish (even for not ethically-related things) and it delayed spread of some idea by decades (most notably: Bell inequality); a single paper may be not enough to start. Commented Nov 6, 2014 at 9:48

I think Jacob Krall's comment is worthy of an answer:

here's also the question of reproducibility: where on earth will you find a second evil scientist who also happens to share research interests with the first?

Setting aside any legal consequences that may happen to the researcher, any study that doesn't have reproducible results is not going to alter the opinions of many. If the results are interesting enough, perhaps someone will find a way of testing it legally (perhaps with non-human subjects?), and so an and so forth, just like any other study.

There have been quite a few "studies" performed that would be illegal under today's law, yet the results from them have not been discarded. I see no difference in this case (with regards to the research).


To get some perspective, what if this doesn't happen in academia but in "real life"? If the person "conducting unethical research" is a police officer searching your home without a warrant, and the "positive result" is that he or she finds conclusive evidence that you committed a crime?

In that case, the rule is that this "positive result" cannot be used in any way whatsoever. Not only can the conclusive evidence not be used in court, it cannot even be used as a reason to investigate you further.

That seems to be the correct way to handle the situation in academia as well: The results of unethical research should be completely ignored, so there is no motivation to conduct unethical research at all.

  • 1
    3 problems. The things that apply in your legal system are not universal. Argument by analogy is usually considered fallacious. And whether other academics use one's research is only one of several possible motivations; so ignoring unethical research does not remove all motivations (some pharmaceutical and tobacco companies have paid some researchers very well for unethical research).
    – 410 gone
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 17:39
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    This analogy is absurd.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 5, 2014 at 19:35
  • Very absurd analogy indeed.
    – user104541
    Commented Feb 17, 2019 at 10:58

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