Section 7: Ethics Assessment and Ethics Guidance by Specific Types of Organisations

This section discusses recommendations regarding ethics assessment and guidance in the context of four specific types of organisations: universities, CSOs, industry and RFOs.

SATORI Framework Web Icons_UniversitiesUniversities

Within the higher education sector, the major instruments for EA and guidance are codes of conduct and practice (i.e. codes of ethics), and integrity boards. Codes of ethics offer guidance to university members on the expected standards of behaviour within their organisation, while integrity boards investigate reported instances of ethical failures and assess whether unacceptable behaviour has occurred.

Codes of ethics

Individual universities should develop a code of ethics that explicitly addresses their conduct in R&I. A code of ethics in R&I should be general rather than focused on one specific discipline. This allows for a discussion by RECs in diverse fields. However, if further clarifications are needed (e.g. in medicine), specific forms of conduct may be added to the general code of ethics.
Codes of ethics should not be published and then forgotten. They should be implemented in the curriculum and institutional strategies. Research integrity boards (described below) are helpful for enforcing these codes. The code of ethics should also be revised and updated on a regular basis. It should be regarded as a ‘living document’ that is open to change, to help identify problems with the code and allow them to be addressed.1

Integrity boards

Integrity boards investigate alleged breaches of the codes of ethics by researchers performing R&I activity. The structure and operation of an integrity board must encourage the trust of both the research community and the public in the fairness and accuracy of its decisions. Investigations of alleged misconduct must strive for fairness and credibility, so that the decisions made based on the evidence gathered during the investigation process will themselves be fair and credible.2
The independence of those investigating alleged misconduct should be guaranteed so that their investigation is fair and impartial. The integrity board should be separate from the research-performing sections of the university. Conflicts of interest (real and apparent) must be avoided, and the integrity board should have the necessary resources to perform its work without having to rely on other sections of the university.3 The processes for investigating, adjudicating, and appealing against allegations of misconduct should also be distinct from each other in order to promote fairness in each stage of the process.4

SATORI Framework Web Icons_Civil Society OrganisationsCivil Society Organisations

Few CSOs were established to perform the function of ethics assessors. Therefore most of them would lack resources, both in terms of financing or staff as well as in terms of EA related expertise that would be required in order to perform full-fledged EA. Additionally, there may be a lack of trust in CSOs opinions as ethics assessors, since they may be seen as leaning towards a specific set of values that defines and shapes their agendas.
In the case of some CSOs, however, it seems justified to recommend their further involvement in RECs as representatives of a specific vulnerable group (e.g. consumers or patients) or spokespeople for a specific interest (e.g. the animal welfare). This involvement would be legitimate if acting on behalf of these groups was defined in the CSOs statutes as one of their key objectives. Such a model ensures that the perspective of those affected by the research is taken into consideration and contributes to a greater diversity of views within RECs. Moreover, CSOs who are involved in R&I more directly should consider establishing structures (codes of conduct and procedures) for internal EA.
At the same time, CSOs that can be identified as those who perform informal EA in the course of their other activities should be offered training in order to increase the awareness of ethical issues, as well as tools such as checklists and general guidelines that can be easily used on an on-going basis in different types of projects.
Another way of strengthening CSOs’ capacity to deal with ethical issues in R&I could be building EA related CSO networks. Bearing in mind the disparities between different states with regard to the level of civil society involvement in EA of R&I (concerning for example the existence of dedicated organisations, or the level of involvement of the public in debates about the societal aspects of R&I), there is a need to exchange best practices between organisations and groups from different states.

SATORI Framework Web Icons_IndustryIndustry

EA by industry is closely related to the concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is well-established in the business world. While studies show that there are several drivers for industry to undertake EA, including key business factors such as improving competitiveness, branding and costs, it also pinpoints important challenges and bottlenecks, including additional costs, bureaucracy, failures of self-regulation mechanisms.
References for EA and CR in the business sector derive from existing normative frameworks and regulations, as well as various types of voluntary initiatives, ranging from codes of practices, frameworks for CR, general and sectorial standards, and company specific initiatives.
Interestingly, the specific concept of R&I is not addressed by these tools in a comprehensive manner, with few or no actions designed explicitly for this issue. Therefore, the work of SATORI could provide an added value to these tools by introducing a strategic EA model explicitly devoted to R&I activities that would be integrated within a broader CR framework.
Approaches might be different in terms of the scope and themes considered, but there are several common procedures, tools and experiences emerging by the report analysis. We want to emphasise the following common procedures, tools and experiences as good practices:

  • Define the domains of influence and responsibility of an organisation over its impacts
  • Identify the relevant topics and prioritise the most important ones for the organisation
  • Apply a due diligence process in the evaluation of impacts
  • Ensure commitment of executives to EA
  • Set a strategy for EA, based on a structured, step-by-step, procedure (e.g. the Plan, Do, Check, Act cycle).
  • Ensure a flexible, modular, incremental process (tailored to the organisation type and needs)
  • Define responsibility for EA along the entire hierarchy of the organisation
  • Ensure credibility of actions:
    • ensure transparency and accountability of the EA process
    • engage with stakeholders to evaluate and review impacts and actions; adopt multi-stakeholder approaches
    • regularly communicate results on EA
    • provide ways for third part evaluation, external assurance of EA
  • Promote training and capacity-building on EA

SATORI Framework Web Icons_Research Funding OrganisationsResearch Funding Organisations

The recommendations for EA by RFOs can be divided into three categories: those concerning the criteria for EA, those concerning the organisational structure of such assessment, and those on the procedures for conducting EA.

Criteria for ethics assessment

RFOs should verify whether the research proposal meets the national legislation and ethics requirements of the country in which the research will be performed. They should also go beyond the minimum standards provided by law in evaluating ethical issues. In addition, the evaluation should be based on ethical principles that are specific to particular kinds of research such as research involving human subjects, research involving animals, and research involving possible environmental risks.
Research conduct should be evaluated in a proactive manner. Evaluation should include the following aspects: research integrity, scientific misconduct, policy criteria such as usefulness of science, open-access strategies, gender issues, transparent communication, benefit sharing, and promotion of the social good. Finally, RFOs should verify whether the research proposal describes possible implications of results in a satisfactory manner relating in particular to individuals and society.

Organisational structure of ethics assessment

RFOs should establish procedures for in-house EA going beyond EA provided by law. EA should be included in regular project selection procedures, and RFOs should provide regular training activities in the field of ethics for staff members engaged in project selection procedures.
Ethics panels should be organised for full ethics review for all projects that have been identified as ethically problematic in a pre-screening phase by staff members involved in project selection of the respective RFO who have received prior training in the field of ethics. Ethics panels should be independent, multidisciplinary and pluralist by including members from different research fields and ethical traditions that are consistent to the goals of ethics assessment.

Procedures for ethics assessment

Transparent procedures for ethics review should be established. These procedures should consist of different phases. Before the start of the project they should include a self-assessment phase, pre-screening phase, and a full ethics review, if applicable. Guides on the EA procedure, including forms for the self-assessment phase clarifying which ethical principles and issues will be regarded as being of particular importance, should also be made available. During the implementation of the project, monitoring should also include aspects relating to research integrity, and scientific misconduct.
RFOs should also hold a permanent structured exchange with their national counterparts in order to discuss ethics in regard to new technologies. The procedures, related guides, and the regular reports of their exchanges with their national counterparts should be published by RFOs on their official website

  1. Anderson, M., and Shaw, M.,“A Framework for Examining Codes of Conduct on Research Integrity”, In T. Mayer & N. Steneck (Eds.), Promoting Research Integrity in a Global Environment, World Scientific Publishing, Singapore, 2012, pp. 133-147 [p. 142-143].
  2. OECD Global Science Forum, Best Practices for Ensuring Scientific Integrity and Preventing Misconduct.
  3. Ibid,, pp. 11-12.
  4. Ibid., pp. 14-15.