Recently, an ecology journal received a submission that made them pause. In order to conduct their research, the authors had to kill thousands of fish. The study had been approved by conservation authorities, but it still wasn’t sitting well with the journal.
So it rejected the paper, on ethical grounds.
Biological Conservation explained its decision in a recent paper, noting the killing of thousands of vertebrates (marine and freshwater fish) in a protected area was “unnecessary and inappropriate,” and adds the journal will continue questioning and rejecting papers that “do not meet reasonable standards of practice.”
This is not a universal practice, however — years ago, The New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) published the results of a research project that resulted in 90 people becoming infected with HIV. Again, that study had obtained the necessary ethical approvals — but should the journal act as the final judge?
According to the editors of Biological Conservation, yes. In “Field work ethics in biological research,” they write:
We urge scientists to conduct research in ways that are respectful to nature, and minimise harm to species and ecosystems…We recognise that the damage to biodiversity caused by research is almost always minor in comparison to the widespread and extensive damage caused by other activities, such as logging, farming, fishing, mining, water pollution, ranching, and urbanization. However, scientific methods should minimise disturbance and stress to biodiversity, and any impacts should be explicitly justified.
The editors note that the authors of the rejected paper, which the journal does not identify,
had the required approvals from the conservation authorities for this work and argued that alternative non-harmful methods, such as camera-traps and baited video, or capture-release methods, would be too time-consuming and expensive because of the species’ low population density.
The journal has also rejected another paper for similar reasons, and one of its editors has declined to review a different study that used “indiscriminate” methods to kill hundreds of vertebrates, the editors add:
These papers intended to demonstrate phenomena already known from other studies in different locations. In our opinion, these studies provided poor justification for harming species where the research simply confirmed a well-known phenomenon already known from other studies in different locations.
Richard Primack, editor-in-chief of Biological Conservation from Boston University, told Retraction Watch that even though some of the studies the journal rejected had obtained ethical approvals, these committees
focus on the species being studied, and not on the impacts to the related species of the surrounding environment.
It’s not always an easy decision. In the article, the editors mention a 2011 study published in Biological Conservation, in which researchers James Cane and John Neff tested the mortality rates of soil-nesting bees at different intensities of fire. According to Primack, the journal asked the authors to justify the experiment, since it involved killing numerous bees. The journal ultimately accepted the paper, because, as the editors explain:
Such fires are widespread, both deliberate and accidental, and this was the first and only practical way to assess their effects on these important pollinators.
Cane, who works for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Utah State University in Logan, told us he agrees that some studies should not pass ethical muster:
Passive trapping techniques for wild bees now enables a researcher to kill 100,000+ bees in the course of a single project. One should ask if this excess is scientifically justified in terms of insight gained, particularly for bee conservation objectives. Would it ever be tolerated for modern studies of any vertebrates?
A representative of the journal told us they did not know if the rejected papers had been published elsewhere.
P. Dee Boersma, director of the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels at the University of Washington in Seattle, said it should not fall within journals’ remits to address this issue:
I think it is for animal care committee to prevent abuse. If animal care is not working then journals should expose the failure. Rejecting papers on ethics should not fall on journals to do. Flawed studies should not get by animal care review.
Science often destroys some pieces of nature to learn important interactions. We infect animals to develop cures for diseases and save human life. I think there has to be some balance between the damage done and what we learn.
…not only is it fair that journals reject papers solely on ethical grounds, but it is absolutely essential to the progress of animal welfare, species conservation, and data validity. Ethically, we as conservation biologists are conducting our science in the 20th century – it is time we move on to emulate at least the basic standards we demand when working with our own species.
Not all journals follow Biological Conservation’s approach — even when it comes to studies involving human subjects.
In 2000, NEJM published a controversial study in which doctors tracked the spread of HIV in 415 couples living in Uganda where one partner was infected, and the other wasn’t. The controversy lies in the fact that the researchers didn’t tell the uninfected person that their partner was infected — but did urge people to tell their partners of their status, and provided free condoms and information on how to prevent transmission. However, by the end of the study, 90 more people were HIV-positive.
For me, the decision was admittedly a very difficult one. The study had been approved by the AIDS Research Subcommittee of the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, the human subjects review boards of Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University, and the Office for Protection from Research Risk of the National Institutes of Health. The subjects were said to have given oral informed consent (although interviews with subjects of similar studies have indicated that it is very difficult for them to understand that they may not receive effective treatment within the study…
After its submission to the Journal, the paper was approved not only by the outside peer reviewers, but also by the relevant editors on the Journal‘s staff. When the paper crossed my desk for final approval, I asked two prominent ethicists who are familiar with research on HIV in developing countries to review it. One thought the study was not ethical; the other thought it was. In the face of these divergent opinions and the favorable views of the other editors and reviewers, I decided to approve publication.
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