Research ethics is complex and requires considering issues from several perspectives simultaneously. I’ve written about the temptation to reduce research ethics to pure protection ethics. Then not as much needs to be kept in mind. Protection is the sole aim, and thinking begins to resemble the plot of an adventure film where the hero finally sets the hostages free.
Protection is of course central to research ethics and there are cases where one is tempted to say that research participants are taken hostage by unscrupulous scientists. Like when a group of African-American men with syphilis were recruited to a research study, but weren’t treated because the researchers wanted to study the natural course of the disease.
Everyday life is not one big hostage drama, however, which immediately makes the issues more complex. The researcher is typically not the villain, the participant is not the victim, and the ethicist is not the hero who saves the victim from the villain. What is research ethics in everyday situations?
There is currently a growing concern that coding of personal data and biospecimens doesn’t sufficiently protect research participants from privacy invasions. Hackers hired to test the security of research databases have in some cases been able to identify the individuals who provided their personal data to research (in the belief that the link to them had been made inaccessible to outsiders through advanced coding procedures). Such re-identified information can obviously harm participants, if it falls into the wrong hands.
What is the task of research ethics here? Suddenly we can begin to discern the outlines of a drama in which the participant risks becoming the victim, the researcher risks becoming the villain’s accomplice, and the ethicist rushes onto the scene and rescues the victim by making personal data in research databases completely anonymous, impossible to identify even for researchers.
But everyday life hasn’t collapsed yet. Perhaps we should keep a cool head and ask: Why are personal data and biological samples not fully anonymized, but coded so that researchers can identify individual patients/research participants? The answer is that it’s necessary to achieve scientific results (and to provide individual patients the right care). Discovering relationships between genetics, lifestyle and disease requires running several registries together. Genetic data from the biobank may need to be linked to patient records in healthcare. The link is the individual, who therefore must be identifiable to the research, through the use of advanced code keys.
The need to identify participants is particularly evident in research on rare diseases. Obviously, there is only scant data on these diseases. The data needs to be shared between research groups, often in different countries, in order to collect enough data for patterns to appear, which can lead to diagnoses and treatments.
An overly dramatic heroic effort to protect privacy would have its own victims.
In an article in the European Journal of Human Genetics, Mats G. Hansson and co-authors develop a different, more sustainable ethical response to the risk of re-identification.
Respecting and protecting participants’ privacy is, of course, a central concern in the article. But protection isn’t the only perspective, since science and health care are ethical values too. And here you need to be able to identify participants. The task the authors assume, then, is that of discussing the risks of re-identification, while simultaneously considering the needs for identifiable data.
The authors are, in other words, looking for a balance between different values: simply because identifiable data are associated with both risks and benefits.
You can read a summary of the article on the CRB website. What I focus on in this post is the authors’ overall approach to research ethics, which doesn’t emphasize the hero/villain/victim opposition of certain dramatic situations.
The public image of research ethics is very much shaped by its function in response to research scandals. But research ethics is usually, and less dramatically, about making everyday life function ethically in a society which contains research. Making everyday life run smoothly is a more complex and important task than playing the hero when everyday life breaks down. In this work, more values and challenges need to be taken into account simultaneously than in emergency scenarios where ethicists, very naturally, focus on protection.
Everyday life may not be as exciting as a research scandal, but if we don’t first and foremost take responsibility for making everyday life work smoothly, as a complex whole, then we can expect more drama.
Keep a cool head and consider the issues from a variety of perspectives!
Hansson, M. G. et al. The risk of re-identification versus the need to identify individuals in rare disease research. European Journal of Human Genetics, advance online publication, 25 May 2016; doi: 10.1038/ejhg.2016.52