Where is ethics involved in research communication?


short answer

well, everywhere, since it’s the “branch of knowledge that deals with moral principles”.

Long answer: Let’s think a little bit about what “everywhere” entails

Imagine every research subject as a region, like the region you live in. This region has cities, villages, isolated homes, rivers, people, trees, grass, pets, back yards, train lines, roads, neighbors, specific food or dialect, political parties, laws, one or more languages spoken, electricity cables, wireless internet floating around…

Now, imagine you’d be making a map of your region.

Are you completely truthful if you only pick some aspects of your region and put them on the map? Are you ethical if you only present the things you’re most interested in showing, be it the coolest bars or your region’s spectacular geography or all the interesting museums? Even if you’d want to put in everything, are you sure you know everything about your region? Zoom in enough and the details might become blurry.

Research communication faces the same problems. And, as with map-building, practical and ethical aspects blend and influence one another.

Simplifying research: between practicality and unethical behavior

If you just browse the news, you’ll see headlines like “Autism gene finally found!” or “Cure for cancer discovered”. The first reason this happens is purely practical: there is a LOT of information out there. Google estimates we produce more information in two days than had existed in the entire world from the dawn of time to 2003. In this great sea of things, one’s brain needs clear-cut, short facts. On the other hand, this practice can quickly become unethical.

Take this headline for example: "Wine is KEY to a longer life". The author is quoted in the news article and what he actually discovered is that: A delicate balance exists between the beneficial and detrimental effects of alcohol consumption, which should be stressed to consumers and patients. So, wine not so much key, but a tool which can become a self-destructive weapon if not used correctly. This example shows the very fine line between much needed simplification and the unethical behavior of leading people on with clickbait.

Filling gaps: between perception and lies

A geophysicist will easily tell you Earth is not flat –here is an astronaut debunking the myth, but the exact details of Earth’s shape are still being studied. Just as scientists know for sure that global warming is not a hoax, but predicting the exact impact of this phenomena is not yet possible, though in 5 or 20 years time this could change. Scientists know for a fact that vaccines don't cause autism, but the full facets and causes of autism are still under investigation.

Every subject contains knowledge holes – this is the main reason of research, to find out and fill in the gaps!

The problem begins when we, as the public, need to trust researchers. How can “we” trust “them” if “they” admit that there are gaps in their knowledge? And how can “we” trust “them” when clearly, mistakes have been made in the past? And because researchers feel that the public’s trust is quite fragile, they will either cover the knowledge gaps with specialised jargon or go to extreme lengths to use phrases like “might”, "there is a high probability" or “suggest” - sometimes, with hilarious results, like this NASA scientist’s response to a question about a potential civilisation on Mars.

Finding the middle ground between “cure for cancer found“ and “maybe possibly a potential cure for a type of cancer still more research has to be made, don't get your panties in a twist“ is very difficult.

We still need to work on trusting each other and accepting that we’re all human and, we can all make mistakes.  

Communication: between empathy and an cold interests

The initial logical conclusion is that researchers should be in control of communicating their results directly to the public. In the end, they know their research and impact best and so, information could come right from the source and not through many potentially distorting hands. But, some people argue that researchers are very bad at talking about their work because they can’t manage to empathise properly. They simply show data and evidence, but can’t move the population, can’t make people care for their research – even though, paradoxically, they have an immense passion and affection for their specific field. 

On the other hand, anyone which could communicate research results has some sort of an agenda, be it getting grants in order to further one’s research subject, attracting more funds, good PR, selling copies or winning votes. Any item on the “agenda” has the potential to chip away from the moral integrity of that particular research communication.

So who should communicate science?

The solutions are many and varied, but all involve greater communication and transparency between the parties involved in communicating research.

MindMint is one of them – where we teach and we encourage researchers to talk directly about their research with the public, to engage and answer questions openly and to participate in an as-honest-as-possible conversations. 

Ethics in science communication – a meeting of two very non-flat worlds

Ethics is the product of a perpetual conversation trying to find out what works best and what “seems to be the most moral”. Thus, our moral compass, our ethics, is what works for us, at this point in time.

In order to have this conversation productively, the public, the researchers and everyone else involved in communicating research, must shed some biases and beliefs – I would love to hear which you think we should try to eliminate/nuance/change in the comments!

Ethical science communication is to stopping viewing research communication it as a tug of war, but instead viewing it as an exciting meeting of different non-flat worlds.