Research ethics is a set of conduct norms applied in science. These principles cover the full scope of research, starting from experiments with humans and animals through to misconduct, fraud and plagiarism. The general principles of contemporary research ethics involve objectivity, integrity, respect for intellectual property, confidentiality, responsible monitoring, social responsibility, non-discrimination, competence, legality, animal care and human subjects protection.
The field of biomedical research is a major concern for research ethics. Contemporary research ethics strives for ethical treatment of human subjects of biomedical and social science research as well as ethical standards in the research into human reproduction, which includes stem cells. Ethical rules protect laboratory, livestock and wild animals involved in research. International concerns extend to environmental risks caused by research and safety of shipping of hazardous research materials.
The Hippocratic Oath, which dates back to 5th century BCE, is an early example of ethics in the medical profession. Through the oath, medical professionals pledge not to do harm. Research ethics went a long way until it acquired its contemporary shape. Until the 20th century, ethical norms of conduct in science were rather fragmented and without a clear focus.
Research ethics became an important issue in the 20th century when science had already developed significantly, but some considered that the harm which research was causing was threatening to outweigh its benefits. The Pure Food and Drug Act passed in 1906 in the United States was the first law in the country to regulate human subject research. The adoption of the act was necessitated by a number of abusive human subject experiments. The law did not put an end to scandals, including syphilis experiments and radiation experiments.
One of the notorious cases of abusive research in the United States was the Tuskegee Syphilis Study (1932-1972). The project was implemented by the U.S. Public Health Service. Researchers carried out a study of 600 African-American men, infecting 400 of them and testing them for a period of 40 years. The participants in the project were refused treatment. The project was terminated only after it acquired a high profile and provoked strong criticisms. In response to the Tuskegee case, the United States passed the National Research Act in 1974, which set up the National Research Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects in Biomedical Research. The Commission's task was to define the major underlying ethical principles in research.
The information on radiation experiments in the United States also provoked a strong response. During World War II and in the 1950s, the U.S. authorities conducted research on the effects of radiation on hospital patients, pregnant women and mentally disabled children. The experiments were meant to enable the authorities to introduce safety standards for work at atomic bomb facilities. It was only in the late 20th century that the government provided financial compensation to the victims of human radiation experiments.
The international efforts to introduce research ethics standards on a global level became more focused after World War II. Research ethics drew the attention of the international community with the disclosure of the atrocities of German doctors conducted in concentration camps during the war. In 1946, a U.S. military tribunal charged 23 German physicians and administrators with war crimes and crimes against humanity. These doctors had conducted medical experiments which claimed numerous lives and caused permanent disabilities to many. The trial inspired the adoption of the Nuremberg Code in 1948, which was the first official international document to promote ethics in research and lay a strong emphasis on the informed consent of participants in experiments. The Code reads: "The voluntary consent of the human participant is absolutely essential."
In 1964, the World Medical Association adopted the Declaration of Helsinki, which introduced ethical guidelines for biomedical research. It focused on the transparency of results from laboratory and animal experiments, the mandatory informed consent of research participants, the qualification of researchers and the ratio of risks and benefits in research. Another international player in the field of research ethics is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Research Organization (UNESCO), whose efforts to promote international reflection on ethics in life sciences dates back to the 1970s. UNESCO works in two main areas — bioethics and ethics of science and technology.