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, both of these reports were the results of multi-year deliberations 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 (see Historical Appendix), the US Congress created a national commission to write 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 Institutional Review Boards (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 write a guiding ethical framework for research involving information and communication technologies (ICT). The results 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 changes to research designs, and enable researchers to explain their reasoning to each other and the general public.