Ethics & the Responsible Researcher

When we conduct research responsibly, we are making decisions and acting in ways that uphold core values in research — such as honesty, accountability, openness and fairness — and that ensure the reproducibility, reliability and trustworthiness of our work.

UBC, funding agencies, mentors and others can offer procedures, protocols and resources that can help you to conduct research responsibly, including those provided on this site. But what should you do when faced with a decision that cannot be addressed by those procedures or protocols? How can you make judgments that are both ethically sound and that safeguard scholarly integrity?

Conducting responsible research relies on us to commit to engaging in conversations about the ethical dimensions of our work, to develop our skill at making ethically sound decisions and to ultimately act with integrity.

A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions

Determining what is the most ethical choice isn’t always cut-and-dried. When it isn’t, we can make the decision-making process easier by applying certain methods and frameworks. We can use these methods to help us distinguish between competing choices, to consider potential consequences when evaluating courses of action and select the best option.

The framework provided below, adapted from the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, incorporates five approaches to ethical standards. Review the framework and consider how it may be helpful to you in situations where existing policies, procedures or standards are unable to provide a clear answer to the challenge you face.

1. Recognize if the Issue has Ethical Implications

Pause and breathe. Use your moral intuition and knowledge of ethical resources, such as institutional policies or professional standards, to define the dilemma.

  • Could this decision or situation be damaging to someone or some group? Does this decision involve a choice between a good and bad alternative, or perhaps between two “good things” or between two “bad things”?

  • Does this issue go beyond questions of what is legal or what is most efficient? If so, how?
2. Get the Facts

Clarify what you know and what you need to know. Identify your assumptions. Consider your responsibilities to various partners and stakeholders.

  • What are the relevant facts? What facts are not known? Can you learn more about the situation? Do you know enough to make a decision?
  • Who is invested in the outcome? Are some concerns more important than others? Why?
  • Have you meaningfully and respectfully consulted all relevant persons and groups?
3. Evaluate Alternative Actions

Generate a list of options for how to act. Determine if any of the options will violate any core ethical values. Identify who and what will be affected by the choice you make — including the environment and its ecosystem; how are the potential outcomes of your action likely to affect them?

  • What are the options for actions to take? Have you identified creative options to resolve the ethical issue?
  • What are some potential short-, medium-, and long-term consequences of each option?
  • Evaluate the options by asking:
    • Which option would produce the most good and do the least harm for all stakeholders? (The Utilitarian Approach)
    • Which option would respect the legal and moral rights of all of the people that are invested in the outcome? (The Rights Approach)
    • Which option would treat affected parties — human participants, community partners, animals, environments and others — equally or proportionately? (The Justice Approach)
    • Which option would serve the community as a whole, not just a portion of its members? (The Common Good Approach)
    • Which option would lead you to act in service of excellence and the common good? (The Virtue Approach)
4. Make a Decision and Test It

Make a choice and state your reasons for this decision. Consider how you can implement the decision while considering the concerns of the affected parties. Anticipate how you might respond to others’ reactions to your decision.

  • Considering all of these approaches, which option best addresses the situation?
  • If you told someone that you respect, or perhaps a television audience, which option you chose, how would that person/audience react?
5. Act and Reflect on the Outcome

Communicate with others about your plan to act and enact it. Accept responsibility for your choice. Reflect on the impact of your decision. 

  • How can your decision be implemented while applying careful consideration of the concerns of all stakeholders?
  • What was the outcome of your decision and what have you learned from this specific situation?

Download PDF - Framework of Ethical Decision Making

Case Studies 

Use the framework provided above to review the following case studies independently or as part of a facilitated discussion.

Use these case studies as an opportunity to engage in the process of ethical decision-making and to articulate and refine your thinking on topics associated with ethical and responsible research practices.

We thank our colleagues at UBC and beyond who provided perspectives and feedback that greatly improved the relevance of these case studies to members of our research community. Their contribution and support are central to our efforts to promote education on and raise awareness of, the importance of the responsible conduct of research.

Reproduction of this material for teaching and research purposes is encouraged, with attribution to UBC's Scholarly Integrity Initiative.



Helpful links — general



The content provided above is adapted from the following: