6.4 Four principles

Four principles that can guide researchers facing ethical uncertainty are: Respect for Persons, Beneficence, Justice, and Respect for Law and Public Interest.

The ethical challenges that researchers face in the digital age are somewhat different than those in the past. However, researchers can address these challenges by building on earlier ethical thinking. In particular, I believe that the principles expressed in two reports—the Belmont Report (Belmont Report 1979) and the Menlo Report (Dittrich, Kenneally, and others 2011)—can help researchers reason about the ethical challenges that they face. As I describe in more detail in the historical appendix to this chapter, both of these reports were the results of many years of deliberation by panels of experts with many opportunities for input from a variety of stakeholders.

First, in 1974, in response to ethical failures by researchers—such as the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study in which almost 400 hundred African American men were actively deceived by researchers and denied access to safe and effective treatment for almost 40 years (see historical appendix)—the US Congress created a national commission to produce ethical guidelines for research involving human subjects. After four years of meeting at the Belmont Conference Center, the group produced the Belmont Report, a slender but powerful document. The Belmont Report is the intellectual basis for the Common Rule, the set of regulations governing human subjects research that IRBs are tasked with enforcing (Porter and Koski 2008).

Then, in 2010, in response to the ethical failures of computer security researchers and the difficulty of applying the ideas in the Belmont Report to digital-age research, the US Government—specifically the Department of Homeland Security—created a blue-ribbon commission to produce a guiding ethical framework for research involving information and communication technologies (ICT). The result of this effort was the Menlo Report (Dittrich, Kenneally, and others 2011).

Together, the Belmont Report and the Menlo Report offer four principles that can guide ethical deliberations by researchers: Respect for Persons, Beneficence, Justice, and Respect for Law and Public Interest. Applying these four principles in practice is not always straightforward, and it can require difficult balancing. The principles, however, help clarify trade-offs, suggest improvements to research designs, and enable researchers to explain their reasoning to each other and the public.