The following occurred at my university (this is from a preliminary report that has been published):

Three colleagues requested permission to perform a certain chemical experiment (analyzing environmental samples) in a laboratory. The request was denied as the lab does not have sufficient ventilation for this sort of job. The colleagues ran the experiment anyway for several months. This was uncovered when several workers in nearby offices complained about headaches, skin rash and breathing difficulties. One person had to stay in a hospital for several days. The scientists have been suspended from or have left the university.

Apparently, the results from these experiments were used in a publication.

Should this publication be retracted? One argument is that the researchers knowingly risked the health and lives of persons to conduct their experiments. Others argue that the results themselves are OK and that the ‘side effects’ do not change the validity of the paper. Are there any ethical standards that deal with this situation or similar cases?

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    Of course it should not be retracted. I can't see any reason for doing it, assuming that the same experiments are not unethical and can be safely conducted in the appropriate environment. The rest is matter for the University and the experimenters. – Alchimista Aug 26 '17 at 14:08
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    Sounds like the ethics part has been remedied - those responsible have been sacked. – Jon Custer Aug 26 '17 at 15:15
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    The reason of a retraction is not punishment, but to erase incorrect results (mistakes or lies). Ethical violations should be punished, but retraction is not a tool for that. – Greg Aug 26 '17 at 16:20
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    @Greg: Well, for instance, in research with human or animal subjects, it seems to be standard practice that studies must have prior ethics approval and oversight, and that the lack of this is grounds for retraction. See for instance retractionwatch.com/?s=irb. Maybe you disagree with this, but in any case I don't think your comment accurately reflects prevailing standards, in general. I am not sure about this specific case. – Nate Eldredge Aug 26 '17 at 16:41
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    A major problem with unethical behavior of this sort is that it casts doubt on the reliability of other aspects of the research. If they were willing to conduct secret experiments that endangered the lives of colleagues, how might you expect them to act if the results were not as they desired them to be? If you're willing to risk people dying for your experiment, surely you'd be willing to lie about results or other methodological practices to get it published, too? – BrianH Aug 27 '17 at 19:07

In human and animal work, the Declaration of Helsinki was written in 1964 and was designed to provide ethical oversight of medical research. Work that was done without proper ethical oversight cannot be published in most reputable journals. If it was somehow published, it would be retracted. Most journals require a statement in the paper that good research practice was followed. Other fields presumably do not require such statements since the frequency of such unethical and dangerous behavior is rare. That said, research that wad conducted in a manner that was more dangerous than necessary should not be published, and if published should be retracted.

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  • That's very interesting, but could you add some citations or links to support your claims about this longstanding tradition? This article would seem to suggest that this so-called tradition may not be as longstanding as you claim. – Dan Romik Aug 26 '17 at 20:59
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    A "long standing tradition" is simply false. Take the years 1930-1945 in Germany and how they experimented on humans and how this got into books. – Leon Meier Aug 26 '17 at 22:38
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    @DanRomik I consider 1964 long standing: en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Declaration_of_Helsinki – StrongBad Aug 26 '17 at 22:46
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    I think the question is whether a breach of workplace safety rules (harming bystanders) should be treated the same as a breach of human subjects ethics (harming the research subjects). It's not obvious to me that they are equivalent. Are you aware of any specific instances of retractions in the former case? – Nate Eldredge Aug 27 '17 at 0:11

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