Ethics in research and good research practice

Ethics in research concerns issues relating to the research content and the researcher’s relationship to the task. Here you can read about important principles that form the basis for good research practice, about the responsibility that researchers have to follow this, and what happens when good research practice is not followed.

Research ethics – about consideration for research persons and other stakeholders

Ethical considerations in research are largely a matter of finding a reasonable balance between various interests that are all legitimate. The quest for knowledge is one such interest. Integrity interests as well as protection against various forms of harm or risk of harm are other legitimate interests. The handling of integrity-sensitive material raises questions about issues such as the interests of the researcher and of the research persons/participants, but also about what promises a researcher can make to participants, and about who owns research material.

Research ethics include aspects that follow from mandatory legislation, for example that some research needs ethical assessment and approval by the Swedish Ethical Review Authority or an animal ethics committee before it is carried out. But research ethics are broader than this. They assume that the ability to reflect on the content of your own research from an ethical perspective is a natural part of everyday life of researchers and their professional judgement.

Research ethics are not static, neither as a discipline nor as a practice. When the scientific landscape changes, research ethics also change, and new principles are formulated at same time as old ones are reinterpreted or applied in a new way. Technical development and other factors in society can have an impact, as can legislation, which can change and directly impact on the preconditions for research ethics.

Ethics in research – the researcher's relationship to the task

Ethics in research concern the researcher’s relationship to the research task or research assignment. The concept of ‘good research practice’ is often used. There is no clear-cut definition of the concept, but it is used to designate the collected ethical requirements that researchers must follow in their professional roles. Following good research practice includes the researcher’s responsibility to relate to research ethics frameworks, including complying with legislation and established norms for research ethics.

The All European Academies’ (ALLEA) publication, “The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity” states some fundamental principles that good research practice is based on. ALLEA’s Code of Conduct has been adopted as the ethical framework for the EU’s research funding, among others. The principles are intended to give researchers guidance on practical, ethical and intellectual problems associated with research.

Reliability in safeguarding the quality of the research, which is reflected in the design, method, analysis and use of resources.

Honesty in developing, implementing and scrutinising research, and in reporting and informing others about research in an open, fair, complete and objective way.

Respect for colleagues, research participants, society, ecosystems, cultural heritage and the environment.

Accountability for research from idea to publication, for management and organisation, for education, supervision and mentorship, and for their wider consequences.

The European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity External link.

The Swedish Research Council’s views on good research practice are based on ALLEA's fundamental principles. The Swedish Research Council’s publication Good research practice develops its views on research ethics issues. Please note however that the publication is partly out-of-date, and a new version of it is expected to be completed in the begining of 2024.

Responsibility for and deviations from good research practice

According to Swedish legislation on good research practice (Lagen (2019:504) om ansvar för god forskningssed och prövning av oredlighet i forskning), researchers are responsible for ensuring they comply with good research practice in their research. The research principal, a higher education institution (HEI) for example, has overall responsibility under the legislation for ensuring that the research is conducted in accordance with good research practice.

Deviations from good research practice can result in misleading results, which in the end can cause harm to humans, animals and the environment. Trust in researchers and research may also be impacted. Deviations may be of differing types and concern anything from minor to very serious breaches.

The law defines research misconduct as “a serious deviation from good research practice in the form of fabrication, falsification or plagiarism (FFP), committed intentionally or through gross negligence during the planning, implementation or reporting of research”. But there are also other deviations from good research practice that are considered to be harmful to the research process or the researchers’ integrity, for example self-plagiarism, incorrect information about merits or co-authorship, withholding research results, abuse of a superior position, or lack of necessary permits.

Lagen om ansvar för god forskningssed och prövning av oredlighet i forskning (2019:504) External link.

How we handle suspected deviations from good research practice

Suspected research misconduct investigations are carried out by a separate public agency, the National Board for Assessment of Research Misconduct (Npof). A report of suspicion may be initiated in three different ways: by submission from a research principal, by sending it direct to Npof, or at Npof’s own initiative.

Further information about the tasks and investigation of cases by Npof can be found on Npof’s website External link.

HEIs covered by higher education legislation (Högskoleförordningen (1993:100) are responsible for investigating other suspected deviations from good research practice, that is, those that are not covered by Npof’s mandate. They shall also adopt guidelines for their investigation. The Association of Swedish Higher Education Institutions (SUHF) has produced guidelines for how this investigation may be made.

SUHF: Guidance for manging suspected deviations from good research practice (only in Swedish) External link.

What happens if a researcher does not comply with good research practice?

A decision that a researcher has deviated from good research practice can have different types of consequences for the researcher. This applies irrespective of whether it is Npof that has found that a researcher has committed research misconduct, or an HEI that has established that another deviation from good research practice has occurred.

The research principal is responsible for measures within their own organisation, and is also responsible for ensuring that the research funding body, public agencies, scientific journals and other stakeholders involved are notified as soon as possible after Npof has reached a guilty decision. A decision may, for example, lead to labour law sanctions, to research funding awarded being withdrawn by a funding body, or that previously published scientific articles are withdrawn. Carrying out research without the necessary permits or approvals can, in some cases, also lead to penal or criminal liability.

As a research funding body, the Swedish Research Council does not itself conduct any investigations into suspected research misconduct or other deviations from good research practice. However, according to our terms and conditions for grants awarded, the recipient shall comply with good research practice, and a conviction by Npof or an HEI can therefore lead to us deciding that the funding will no longer be paid out.




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