What is research ethics?

Research ethics is applied ethics in the scientific field. In the national guidelines, research ethics is defined as «values, norms, and institutional arrangements that help constitute and regulate scientific activities» (NENT 2016, NESH 2021).

The guidelines define the term research ethics broadly, including responsibility for good scientific practice, responsibility for individuals and groups who take part in or are affected by research, and responsibility for the use of research in the society.

National and international research ethics guidelines can be regarded as the specification of recognized research ethical norms. These norms provide guidance towards good and responsible research. One such norm is the obligation to obtain consent when a research project deals with personal data. In such projects, consent from research participants is often considered the general rule (NESH 2021 no. 15). The norms can be justified through values or principles, such as respect for individuals.

According to the national research ethics guidelines, research ethics norms can be divided into three areas:

  1. Norms that constitute good scientific practice, related to the quest for accurate, adequate and relevant knowledge, such as academic freedom, originality and openness, and norms regulating the research community. The purpose is to ensure reliable knowledge. Scientific knowledge is produced when the individual contributes his or her insights, based on the insights gained by others, and the research is subjected to critical examination. Thus, respecting the contributions of others, ensuring good citation practice, criticism and impartiality is important.

  2. Norms that regulate the relationship with individuals (including animals) and groups who are directly or indirectly affected by the research. The purpose is to ensure that the research benefits the individuals and to protect against the violation of human rights and other harm. This purpose is related to the principles of respect, good consequences and fairness.

  3. Norms regarding the overall social responsibility of scientific research, including its implications for society, its relevance, user interest, and the academic responsibility to maintain a well-functioning public debate. The purpose is to ensure that research benefits society and that it does not cause harm to individuals, society or the environment. Respect, good consequences and fairness are central principles in this area as well.  The principles of sustainability and precaution are relevant in assessing the potential impact of research on individuals, society and the environment.

In Norway, institutional arrangements have been developed for all areas of research ethics, but with different degrees of legal regulation.