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1. Using Data

1.1 The communal, practical, and educational purposes of research

Although publication is an important component of academic life, the ultimate goal of conducting research should not be getting published but making discoveries that can be used to advance the endeavors of the research community and society. Therefore, a researcher’s ethical responsibility is not completed with the publishing of research findings. In principle, a researcher has a duty to use her findings—and the research data—in ways that contribute to the communal, practical, and educational purposes of research. Research is a communal activity. The research community includes a variety of actors: researchers, administrators, academic institutions, funders, journals, industry, and the government, to name a few. Just as data exist in a complex ecosystem of people, resources, and relations, the research community is an assemblage of individuals, organizations, infrastructure, and networks. Individual researchers’ inquiries, exchanges, and collaborations contribute to the overall objectives of the community, which include creating new knowledge, improving our understanding of nature and society, meeting societal needs, enhancing the research capacity of the community, as well as earning respect and trust for researchers as a whole. Some of these objectives, such as pursuits of new knowledge and improved understanding, are perhaps no surprise to you. After all, many researchers are driven by a passion to know more. It is also no secret that we make progress in science and technology on the ground of existing knowledge accumulated through past research. To maintain this progress, every member in the research community has a shared obligation to advance humanity’s knowledge and understanding through their individual effort. Therefore, the epistemic norms of this community expect every researcher to ask: “How could my data be used to advance our communal objective of updating human knowledge?”

Some researchers might doubt whether they have a duty to meet society’s practical needs. They might be glad when their research happens to help society but remain reluctant to assume ethical responsibility to society. Others might suggest a division of labor, which suggest applied researchers, not theoretical researchers, should focus on the practical benefits of research. In response to these ideas, in Unit 1 when we present a reciprocal relationship between the research community and society: because most research is funded with public resources in one way or another, it is fair to expect in return some benefits to society. Of course, as with business investment, some projects would yield a great profit and others would fail, thus there is no guarantee that every research project will produce direct social benefits. Furthermore, practical concerns should not be the only criterion in evaluating research contributions. In general, it is fair to argue that researchers, including those involved in theoretical inquiries, have a duty to make comprehensive and well-balanced choices between the intellectual and practical contributions of their research projects.


Public Good as a Professional Responsibility

While the reciprocal relationship between the research community and society implicitly presumes researchers’ responsibility for practical social good, many professional societies have made this responsibility explicit in professional codes of ethics. For example, Item e, Canon 1 of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) “Code of Ethics” states that “Engineers should seek opportunities to be of constructive service in civic affairs and work for the advancement of the safety, health and well-being of their communities, and the protection of the environment through the practice of sustainable development” (ASCE, 2016). For researchers in civil engineering then, pursuing public good is not only an expectation for “good citizenship” in the research community but also a requirement by their profession.


Educating the public is an important way to translate research discovery into practical social good. For example, research in physiology might contribute to public health by teaching the public about good habits of exercising. On many occasions, researchers can use their data to inform public actions or policy decisions. The educational function of research is also an important means for the research community to earn public respect and trust. To properly inform the public of their findings, researchers often have to do additional work so as to interpret data in ways that respect its integrity while making it accessible to the popular audience. The educational purposes of research also include the training of junior researchers. Such training not only helps more people become excited about research but also enhances the diversity of the research community.

The practical and educational purposes of research are recognized in the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) “Broader Impacts” criterion for reviewing proposed research:

Advance discovery and understanding while promoting teaching, training, and learning;

Broaden participation of under-represented groups;

Enhance infrastructure for research and education;

Broaden dissemination to enhance scientific and technological understanding;

Benefits to society.


1.2 Principles of disseminating research

Publication is certainly an important means of disseminating findings to the research community and the public, and therefore, questions like whether to publish and what to publish also involve ethical choices. Rozier and Rozier (2014) propose “reproducibility, correctness, and buildability” as three guiding principles for ethical dissemination of research. According to these authors, reproducibility “refers to the capability to reproduce fundamental results from released details.” Maintaining data integrity is an important premise for generating reproducible results. Besides, reproducibility also indicates that relevant information about the research process should be released so that other researchers can reasonably reproduce the published work. Rozier and Rozier (2014)’s concept of correctness “refers to the ability of an independent reviewer to verify and validate the results.” Finally, buildability refers to “the ability of other researchers to use the published research as a foundation for their own new work” (Rozier and Rozier 2014). Taken together, these principles require that researchers disseminate honest, reliable, and helpful results to peer researchers. To ensure that research is disseminated not only for the benefits of peer researchers but also for informing the public, we might extend the principle of “buildability” as “the ability for other researchers and social groups to use the published research as a foundation to advance knowledge, public welfare and education.”