Does research have any ethics, or is it all just hogwash?

It cannot be denied that the concept of self-regulation and ethics in India has been an issue of debate within research — more often in medicine than in the social sciences.

 |  6-minute read |   27-08-2020
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Ethics in India has its origin in Dharma and refers to the ‘right’ way to live according to ancient Indian wisdom. But Dharma or the originator of modern-day ethics has varied across cultures across the world. Thus the ways societies view ethics has also evolved based on the changing times. The real need for a formal code of research ethics was felt internationally due to the inhuman and gruesome actions of a few Nazi scientists during World War II. The Nuremberg Trials or the Doctor’s Trial led to the Nuremberg Code in 1947, the father of all biomedical ethical guidelines concerning human subjects. Following this, ethical guidelines to direct human behaviour, especially when it comes to the way one should treat fellow humans evolved practically in every field.

In the Indian context, there are ethical guidelines across the board including business ethics, IPR, trademarks, copyright laws and for clinical trials in medical research guidelines by the ICMR. Universities and other institutions have set up 'ethics committees' for research across subjects and disciplines. When we think of ethical violations in India, the first thoughts that crop up are in terms of IPR, copyright and trademark infringement, patent or plagiarism — matters mostly related to law enforcement.

Thus, the main question that arises is why ethics has to be enforced by law rather than being self-regulated and treated as an essential step that leads to credible and impactful research.

main1_research-india_082720113916.jpgIt cannot be denied that the concept of self-regulation and ethics in India has been an issue of debate within research — more often in medicine than in the social sciences. (Representative photo: Reuters)

In recent years, several cases of ethical violations in Indian academia have emerged. A reputed newspaper reported that a series of papers were published by some of the Indian scientists (belonging to prestigious research institutions), which were flagged on a research discussion platform for including images that had been modified and copied from other sources. The academics in question might just have wanted to cut corners, but this points to more systemic issues.

It cannot be denied that the concept of self-regulation and ethics in India has been an issue of debate within research — more often in medicine than in the social sciences — especially for clinical and non-clinical health research. The ethical norm practised in India mostly constitutes getting ‘consent’ of the respondents to participate in a study, which is often verbal due to the low literacy levels of the respondents. Also, not all risks and benefits are necessarily explained while sharing the consent statement or whether the respondent has comprehended their right to withdraw completely at any point of the study. Overly lax behaviour puts the respondents' privacy at stake and raises some questions about fundamental human rights like research participants’ safeguarding during and after the research.

India lacks a legal framework for conducting non-clinical research (except for social research in public health). Simply put, the laws to protect the participants' human rights are either weak or absent. In social sciences, the ethical approval process outlined by the concerned committees is unstructured, time-consuming, complicated and quite different from institution to institution — often bypassing or altogether avoiding it has become the norm. The research can get done not only by merit, but also by knowing who is who in the system. This way, researchers can bypass the structures and get approval.

There is an infamous line people use especially in Delhi "Tu janta nahi mera baap kaun hai” (you don’t know who my father is). It translates to the fact that because of one’s family’s power and connections, one is authorised to get the work done, even if this would not be possible by conventional means. Merit takes a backseat, and this becomes one of the reasons for India topping the charts when it comes to corruption and results is degrading the quality of research. India has also gained quite a reputation for ‘jugaad,’ a colloquial Hindi word which means a 'quick fix solution' for any problem with minimal resource utilisation. Jugaad opens the avenues for out-of-the-box thinking and innovation. However, at times it is done at the cost of ethics or moral compass to direct solutions to any problems. 

In recent times, there has been some improvement in India’s ethical regulations possibly due to a decline in the quality and integrity of research and a loss of international reputation. For instance, the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India prepared the Draft National Policy of Academic Ethics in July 2019, that addresses issues such as plagiarism, data manipulation, and harassment. Though India doesn’t have a standalone data protection legislation, the government’s Committee of Experts released a draft Personal Data Protection Bill in July 2018, bringing India one step closer to passing a comprehensive data privacy law (updated on December 2019), which also restricted and regulated the transfer of data outside of India. In December 2019, UGC has also mandated a two-credit course on ethics as a part of the course work for pre-doctoral students in India. The recently published National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 envisions reforming the current school and higher education system to change the landscape of ‘Indian learning' and create global citizens with conviction in the Indian ethos and spirit. A key thrust of the NEP is to promote Higher Education research. However, with 0.65 per cent of GDP allocated to research (as of 2018), the resource constraints are unlikely to lead to a more streamlined and implementable ethics process. This is quite ironic as the NEP proclaims that ethics is integral to developing 'enlightened citizens’ for a better future for India.

Though the transformation is required at an institutional and policy level, solely blaming the system is not helpful. People run the system and the core philosophies that govern them. It boils down to the awareness and inclusion of ethics as a core principle in the professional training of educators making them more ethically competent so this can be passed on to their students. The need for ethics in the curriculum is recognised in the NEP for school education, so children start to understand issues pertaining to right and wrong. Indian higher education needs to develop an 'ethical mentality.' The key elements of ethics education and the training of researchers is not intended to serve merely as regulation, policy or absolute prescriptions for research practices. Instead, the goal is to assist the researcher in identifying crucial ethical crossroads themselves and in developing decision-making strategies that reflect integrity and merit trust. Thus, ethics education is imperative to generate awareness to make ethical decisions and to overcome the need to make it legally enforceable.

Also Read: I'm a scientist. I returned from US to find why India can't become a superpower

Writer

Aditi Banerji and Marie Lall

Dr Aditi Banerji is a Research Associate at IRDSE and Professor Marie Lall is Director of research at IRDSE and Chair in Education and South Asian Studies at the UCL Institute of Education.

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