Research ethics under scrutiny in the summer school for PhD candidates

A group of Europe’s brightest doctoral candidates will convene at the University of Helsinki to discuss issues regarding research ethics.

“Ethical questions have received a great deal of attention in working life – as well as in research,” says social psychologist Liisa Myyry.

In her work as a senior lecturer in university pedagogy at the Faculty of Social Sciences, Myyry is also responsible for developing tools for learning.  Next week she will be busy with the LERU (League of European Research Universities) Doctoral Summer School, hosted by the University of Helsinki.

Going under the name Doing the right things right, LERU’s fifth summer school will be attended by a group of rigorously selected PhD candidates from different LERU member universities.

“One example of interesting discussion topics is what happens when researchers meet each other through international projects. We Finns have grown used to ethical guidelines, which rely on the academic community’s self-regulation, but this is not true of all countries,” explains Academy of Finland research fellow Erika Löfström, Chair of the LERU Doctoral Summer School 2014.

Other topics to be discussed at the event include the duty of science to contribute to the betterment of society, as well as the media exposure of research, that is, how to report research results in the human sciences without this harming the groups or individuals studied.

Observations and decisions are based on values

At Liisa Myyry’s workshop, the summer school participants will analyse research-ethics issues based on the moral psychology model that James Rest developed in the 1980s.

Rest identified four components of problem analysis. Firstly, a researcher needs some degree of moral sensitivity to even recognise a potential ethical problem. Moral sensitivity also forms the basis for interpreting such problems.

“How do our actions affect others and who all does the solution to the problem impact? What courses of action are available to us? To solve a dilemma, we need to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and show empathy,” says Myyry.

Reflective ethics work as a counterforce to emotion and intuition in ethical decision-making: when deciding on a course of action you should take into consideration everything you know about the possible consequences.

Commitment to an ethical objective and responsibility for the ethical consequences of one’s actions, in turn, form the basis for moral motivation.

“Moral values – both personal and social – should take precedence.They influence our observations, behaviour and decision-making,” says Myyry.

Do we have the backbone for tough decisions?

Moral character is a crucial element of the toolkit for ethical action. Once we have made a choice based on our own principles, we must act accordingly – even when it feels difficult. This calls for an awareness of the bases of our actions.

“Individuals with moral backbone are able to deal with conflicts in the work community and take action if they notice that someone treats the group members unfairly or behaves badly in other ways,” Myyry concludes.

The “Doing the right things right” – Research Integrity in a Complex Society summer school will convene in mid-July at Minervatori in the Faculty of Behavioural Sciences facilities on Siltavuorenpenger.