- Researching with Integrity: The Ethics of Academic Enquiry
A good question, posed every year across the country, is: "Why do we have to complete these stupid IRB procedures?" One hears it supported by "We talk to adults," "We're not touching their bodies," and "It's not as if we're strapping them to the table and forcing them to talk to us." And then, those of us who seem always to be the ones to ask those questions go off to class to teach our students how "to complete these stupid IRB procedures," hoping that our answers will convince the students more than they convince us.
Bruce Macfarlane's most recent monograph on research ethics provides a very concrete, historically accurate answer, at least to the overt questions of "why." The first three short chapters outline the development of guidelines for ethical scientific research on humans after World War II, including the codification of dominant principles of research ethics (specifically the "Georgetown mantra"). The presentation of this material is clear and concise, but I feel that Macfarlane is simply using it as the "hook" to entice readers to bite on his main thesis. [End Page 182]
Those of us who "research" on humans are bound by a set of cultural regulations that stem from two 20th-century examples of research experimentation that lacked critical oversight, both of which provided new data and information at the expense of people's health and even lives. How to conduct research more humanely—and, in the process, to develop personal character through taking "personal responsibility for decisions rather than justifying actions on the basis of a de-personalized but rational rule or principle for making a judgment" (p. 34)—is the true aim of Researching with Integrity.
Macfarlane divides the question of research ethics into the process (how "the activities of researchers are now regarded by university authorities and administrators as a 'risk' that needs to be managed" [p. 24]) and the characteristics of ethical behavior. Those characteristics, which he terms "virtues," are courage, respectfulness, resoluteness, sincerity, humility, and reflexivity. Each is tied to a phase of the research process—namely, framing, negotiating, generating, creating, disseminating, and reflecting.
The six virtues constitute integrity, which Macfarlane posits as the developmental outcome for the researcher through the research process. Drawing from Aristotle and Aquinas, Macfarlane conceptualizes each virtue as a midpoint between two vices, between deficit and excess. Fostering particular consistent dispositions along those continua is the more important reason to attempt to follow ethical principles. This form of character education seems far removed from the bio-scientific origins of institutional research reviews.
In the four brief chapters that comprise the second part of the book, Macfarlane explores each virtue as it relates to his conceptualization of the research process, from ideation to completion. He attempts to posit each virtue as understandable on its own premise, apparently hoping to convey each as a positive goal of its own. Yet virtue was almost always taught through cautionary tales of vice and excess at the expense of others. The Greeks did so, through the myths of Sisyphus, Pandora, and Midas; the initial guardians of human research ethics did it through the parables of Nuremburg and Tuskegee; some of us do so now through relaying the contemporary stories of Wolcott (2002) and Humphreys (Galliher, Brekhus, & Keys, 2004).
Developing the concept of "doing good" in others seems, across cultures, to be necessarily done through teaching the consequences of "doing bad." I was not convinced from some of Macfarlane's examinations of the virtues as much as I was from the examinations of the vices associated with the virtues. These cautionary tales are often provided in the book by researchers' short, anonymous narratives.
Aristotle wrote in the Poetics, "Virtue in itself is not enough; there must also be the power to translate it into action," and therein lies the rub of Macfarlane's book.
As thought-provoking in the abstract as his examination of ethical virtues is, it offers little guidance...