Is it ethical to publish unethical research?

How should journal editors treat submissions based on unethical research? Is it ethical to publish scientific results if they build on unethically gathered data? A recent case has forced reflection on these questions and suggests that changes need to be made to the publishing system.

Norway continues to hunt Minke whales for commercial purposes. Information from this hunting activity is entered into an official DNA register. Not surprisingly, the register offers interesting research possibilities.

Dr Kevin Glover of Norway's Institute of Marine Research led a group of scientists who used the DNA register to expand our knowledge of Minke whale activity. His research was published in a paper titled “Migration of Antarctic Minke Whales to the Arctic”, in the journal PLoS ONE.

Before submitting his article to PLoS ONE, Grover sent a submission query to Biology Letters, describing the research results and noting the data sources.

A week later the journal replied. "We feel that Biology Letters should not publish papers that use data from the Japanese or Norwegian whaling programmes."

While this example is theoretically about a difference of opinion on hunting, it is really about editors’ ethical standards and how they affect the process of scientific publishing.

There are a number of conventions and codes on ethical behaviour for researchers and editors. In this case, however, the editor of Biology Letters did not appeal to any codified ethical guidelines, and she changed tack when asked for explanations.

At first she appealed to “a widely held view...that [Norwegian and Japanese whaling programmes] are unethical”. When pressed, though, she changed the story, saying the decision was based on "advice from a highly respected marine mammal expert".

(For more on the story and details of the sources see this article, “How Whale Hunting can Improve Scientific Publishing".)

The ethical dilemma

It may indeed be a widely held view that whaling is unethical. But it clearly is less widely held that research on whale DNA from a pre-existing register is also unethical.

Indeed, PLoS ONE wasn't deterred by this issue. And, with PLoS ONE being a new, open access journal, the editors have to be particularly careful about their reputation.

Editors differ in their ethical evaluations. Surely that's no surprise. But is it a problem?

Would Biology Letters publish research based on the DNA of farmed chickens? (Google it.) Would it be acceptable if a vegan editor refused to publish any animal research at all?

It is easy to construct hypothetical ethical dilemmas, but they all point to this real one: is it professional for editors to refuse articles on the basis of their personal ethical views, on the basis of their perception of what is a widely held view, or even on the basis of a single expert?

That's the heart of the matter. Can an editor refuse to consider an article because s/he thinks the research is unethical?

Making publishing better

Are there changes to the publishing system that could help editors with ethical dilemmas if they know there is disagreement within the scholarly community?

Maybe a system with different structures could spare individual editors the task of resolving ad hoc ethical dilemmas, without leaving them feeling that they have abandoned their principles.

There are at least two recent developments that might help in these situations if they were more widely deployed.

Enhanced reviewing

The story I've told here is not an argument for open access publishing per se. There is no necessary difference between the editorial procedures of open access journals and traditional ones. The different treatments of the whaling paper by PLoS ONE and Biology Letters are independent of their respective statuses as open access and traditional journals.

However, open access publishing is often internet-based, which can facilitate new approaches to reviewing.

One recent development involves enhanced reviewing. Articles could be put up on a website for discussion prior to publication, as part of the reviewing process. Alternatively, a journal could start with a traditional review, but also facilitate post-publication review, allowing more feedback on the article.

Either of these approaches would put an ethically controversial article in front of the community. The research results would become known, but the methods would also be debated.

In the case of enhanced pre-publication review, the editor sees a nuanced discussion before making a decision. With post-publication review, the discussion stays with the article, available for all future readers to see.

(I elaborate on this and related issues in the article “New Approaches to Quality Control in Publishing”.)

Public debate

The second approach involves an enhanced symbiotic relationship between journals and social media. Remember the #arseniclife debate last year? (It is discussed in the article “Arsenic Gives Aspiration: Twitter and open access publishing”.)

In this case, a paper was put on a website prior to journal publication. It was heavily debated – on Twitter. And when the article was published, part of the Twitter debate was also published.

Greater use of these approaches could help to clarify complicated ethical debates, and would address both scientific results and ethical issues in the methodology.

Editors could satisfy their ethical qualms, confident that the issues would receive lively discussion. But scientists would still be able to see the research and build on the discoveries of their peers.

Ethics and professionalism are in principle not in conflict. Yet well-intentioned and intelligent scientists can disagree. The passions brought to the discussion of whaling illustrate this unambiguously.

As a result of debates on ethically challenging topics like whaling, new tools might emerge – tools that can help get our ethical and professional concerns re-aligned.

For it surely is true, as the Moby Dick author Herman Melville wrote, that “of all tools used in the shadow of the moon, men are most apt to get out of order”.

* Curt Rice is pro rector (vice-president) for research and development at the University of Tromsø in Norway. He blogs on topics related to university leadership.