Guidelines for Discussion

Although most of this section is written with a focus on case discussions, the principles and approaches are generally applicable to any conversation or discussion involving ethical challenges.

What are case studies?

Based on real or contrived scenarios, case studies are a tool for discussing scientific integrity. Cases are designed to confront the readers with a specific problem that does not lend itself to easy answers. By providing a focus for discussion, cases help trainees to define or refine their own standards, to appreciate alternative approaches to identifying and resolving ethical problems, and to develop skills for dealing with hard problems on their own.

How should cases be analyzed?

Many of the skills necessary to analyze case studies can become tools for responding to real world problems. Cases, like the real world, contain uncertainties and ambiguities. Readers are encouraged to identify key issues, make assumptions as needed, and articulate options for resolution. In addition to the specific questions accompanying each case, readers might consider the following questions:

  1. WHO: Who (individuals, institutions, a field of research, society) is affected?
  2. CONFLICTS: What interest(s) (material, financial, ethical, other) does each party have in the situation? Which interests are in conflict?
  3. ACTIONS TAKEN: Were the actions taken by each of the affected parties acceptable (ethical, legal, moral, or common sense)? If not, are there circumstances under which those actions would have been acceptable? Who should impose what sanction(s)?
  4. OPTIONS: What other courses of action are open to each of the affected parties? What is the likely outcome of each course of action?
  5. YOUR CHOICE: For each party involved, what course of action would you take, and why?
  6. PREVENTION: What actions could have been taken to avoid the conflict?

If consensus is not possible, then written or oral summaries should reflect majority and minority opinions.

Is there a right answer?

Acceptable Solutions

  • It will not always be the case that a perfect solution can be found. Most problems have several solutions worth considering, but even the best solution may still have unsatisfactory consequences.

Unacceptable Solutions

  • While more than one solution may be possible, not all solutions are acceptable. For example, obvious violations of specific rules and regulations or of generally accepted standards of conduct would typically be unacceptable. However, it is also plausible that blind adherence to accepted rules or standards would sometimes be an unacceptable course of action.

Ethical Decision-Making

  • Ethical decision-making is a process, not an endpoint. The clearest instance of a wrong answer is the failure to engage in that process. It is always unacceptable to have made no reasonable attempt to define a consistent and defensible basis for conduct.