17 February 2016

Ethical research policy and
formal proposal procedures

The Hippocratic Oath: a standard for ethics in professional behaviour

Patrick Comerford,

Church of Ireland Theological Institute,

17 February 2016,

3:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.


When most of us think of ethics, we think of rules that help us to distinguish between right and wrong.

Can you give me some examples?

1, The Ten Commandments tell us how to treat others: Do not kill, do not steal, do not commit adultery, do not covet your neighbours goods …

2, The Golden Rule tells us to “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

3, Medical practitioners are bound by the Hippocratic Oath, which says: “First of all, do no harm.”

Quite often, these rules are the most common way of defining ethics. They offer norms for conduct that distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.

Most people acquire a sense of right and wrong as children, so that we grow up thinking many moral standards are simple common sense. But we know, of course, that common sense is not very common.

Most people recognise some common ethical norms but interpret, apply, and balance them in different ways in light of their own values and life experiences.

For example, two people could agree that murder is wrong but disagree about the morality of abortion because we have different understandings of what it is to be a human being.

Because so many of our ethical standards are rule based, we often confused ethics and legality.

It is a common plea from politicians who are caught in corruption scandals: “I did nothing illegal.” Not “I did nothing wrong,” but “I did nothing that broke the law.”

They think less about shame and embarrassment and more about fines, sentences and jail terms.

Ethical norms tend to be much more difficult to define and to implement than laws.

Examples may include:

An action may be legal but unethical or illegal but ethical.

Can you give me some examples?

In the 20th century, many social reformers called on people to disobey laws that were immoral or unjust laws.

1, Mahatma Gandhi in the demand for Indian independence.

2, Martin Luther King and others who struggled against legalised segregation and racism in the United States.

3, Desmond Tutu and other campaigners against apartheid in South Africa.

4, The women at Greenham Common.

Professional ethics:

Many different disciplines, institutions, and professions have standards of behaviour that suit their particular aims and goals. These standards also help members of the discipline to co-ordinate their actions or activities and to establish public trust in the discipline.

For instance, ethical standards govern conduct in medicine, law, architecture, business and the clergy.

What ethical standards apply to priests and clergy?


Examples may include:

1, The ‘seal of confession’

2, Domestic and child abuse at home.

3, Pastoral care or intervention.

4, Sexual boundaries.

5, Political views.

6, Drug abuse, alcohol abuse, talk of suicide.

7, Disclosure to the media … “whistle-blowing” versus breach of confidentiality.

8, Mission and evangelism during the course of research.

Ethics and research

Ethical norms also serve the aims or goals of research and apply to people who conduct scholarly research or other scholarly or creative activities.

There are several reasons why it is important to adhere to ethical norms during the course of your research.

1, Norms promote the aims of research, such as knowledge, truth, and avoidance of error. For example, prohibitions against fabricating, falsifying, or misrepresenting research data promote the truth and minimise error.

2, Since research often involves co-operation and co-ordination between different people in different disciplines and institutions, ethical standards promote values essential to collaborative work, such as trust, accountability, mutual respect, and fairness. For example, many ethical norms in research, such as guidelines for authorship, copyright, data sharing policies and confidentiality rules, are designed to protect intellectual property interests and to encourage collaboration. Most researchers want to receive credit for their contributions and do not want to have their ideas stolen or disclosed prematurely.

3, Many of the ethical norms help to ensure that researchers are accountable.

4, Ethical norms in research help to build public support for research. People are more likely to co-operate with a research project if they can trust the quality and integrity of research.

5, Many of the norms of research promote a variety of other important moral and social values. Ethical lapses in research can significantly harm the subjects, students, and the public.

Ethical questions to discuss:

One of the questions you are likely to be asked by your external examiner is about the ethical questions raised by and during your research. Apart from the ethical questions raised by your dissertation topic, you may also consider these issues:

1, Confidentiality: identifying someone you have interviewed

2, Confidentiality: using material collected during pastoral visits.

3, Protect confidential communications, such as papers you read, personal and personnel records you have access to, professional secrets.

4, What about anecdotal information?

5, Honesty: How do you deal with opinions you do not agree with?

6, Honesty: how do you handle material or findings that go against your expectations.

7, Fabricating data, including hiding data collected.
8, Data protection: how to record interviews, how to label it, where to store it.

9, Keeping records: dating, storing, access.

10, Deception.

11, Plagiarism: respect Intellectual Property; honour patents, copyrights, and other forms of intellectual property; do not use unpublished data, methods, or results without permission; give proper acknowledgement or credit for all contributions to research. Never plagiarise.

12, How do you demonstrate accountability: to the Church, your placement parish, your sponsoring bishop, your fellow students, staff at CITI?

13, How do I avoid discrimination on the basis of sex, race, ethnicity, social class or background, or other factors not related to competence and integrity?

Working methods:

1, Respect people: minimise harms and risks and maximise benefits; respect human dignity, privacy, and autonomy; take special precautions with vulnerable people; strive to distribute the benefits and burdens of research fairly.

2, Strive to avoid bias in experimental design, data analysis, data interpretation, peer review, personnel decisions, expert testimony, and other aspects of research where objectivity is expected or required.

3, Avoid or be aware of bias or self-deception.

4, Disclose personal or financial interests that may affect your research.

5, Avoid careless errors and negligence.

6, Carefully and critically examine your own work and the work of your peers.

7, Keep good records of research activities, such as data collection, research design, and correspondence with agencies or journals.

8, Be open: share data, results, ideas, tools, resources.

9, Be open: to criticism and new ideas.

10, Maintain and improve your own professional competence and expertise through a commitment to lifelong education and learning.

11, Ethics and the law: know and obey the relevant laws.

Some advice:

1, Honestly report data, results, methods and procedures, and publication status.

2, Do not fabricate, falsify, or misrepresent data.

3, Do not deceive colleagues, staff, or the public.

4, Keep your promises and agreements.

5, Act with sincerity.

6, Strive for consistency of thought and action.

Some guiding principles:

1, Voluntary participation.

2, Informed consent.

3, Avoiding risk of harm.

4, Respect confidentiality and privacy.

5, Be aware, including legal limits.

Further reading:

A Shamoo and D Resnik, Responsible Conduct of Research (New York: Oxford University Press, 3rd ed, 2015).

Appendix 1: The Hippocratic Oath:

I swear by Apollo, the healer, Asclepius, Hygieia, and Panacea, and I take to witness all the gods, all the goddesses, to keep according to my ability and my judgment, the following Oath and agreement:

To consider dear to me, as my parents, him who taught me this art; to live in common with him and, if necessary, to share my goods with him; To look upon his children as my own brothers, to teach them this art.

I will prescribe regimens for the good of my patients according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

I will not give a lethal drug to anyone if I am asked, nor will I advise such a plan; and similarly I will not give a woman a pessary to cause an abortion.

But I will preserve the purity of my life and my arts.

I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in this art.

In every house where I come I will enter only for the good of my patients, keeping myself far from all intentional ill-doing and all seduction and especially from the pleasures of love with women or with men, be they free or slaves.

All that may come to my knowledge in the exercise of my profession or in daily commerce with men, which ought not to be spread abroad, I will keep secret and will never reveal.

If I keep this oath faithfully, may I enjoy my life and practice my art, respected by all men and in all times; but if I swerve from it or violate it, may the reverse be my lot.

(Revd Canon Professor) Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. These notes were prepared for a seminar with MTh students in Year Ii on writing and research skills on 17 February 2016.

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