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2.7: Ethical Considerations

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    Learning Objectives
    1. Explain the "Three R's".
    2. Explain why research is still conducted on nonhuman animal subjects.
    3. Describe the Tuskegee Syphilis Study and explain the ramifications of studies like these on research.


    In this section, we will discuss the ethics of conducting research, both on nonhuman animal subjects and on human subjects. We will discuss a handful of examples of ethical violations and how these violations have led to negative outcomes in some situations.

    Ethics in Neuroscience Research

    Research has a very complicated history with respect to ethics. This is true when discussing our treatment of nonhuman animal subjects and our treatment of human subjects as well. Let’s start by discussing the ethical considerations for nonhuman animal subject research.

    Nonhuman Animal Subject Research

    One area of controversy regarding research techniques is the use of nonhuman animal subjects. One of the keys to behaving in an ethical manner is to ensure that one has given informed consent to be a subject in a study. Obviously, animals are unable to give consent. For this reason, there are some who believe that researchers should not use nonhuman animal subjects in any case.

    There are others that advocate for using nonhuman animal subjects because nonhuman animal subjects many times will have distinct advantages over human subjects. Their nervous systems are frequently less complex than human systems, which facilitates the research. It is much easier to learn from a system with thousands of neurons compared to one with billions of neurons like humans. Also, nonhuman animals may have other desirable characteristics such as shorter life cycles, larger neurons, and translucent embryos. However, it is widely recognized that this research must proceed with explicit guidelines ensuring the safe treatment of the animals. For example, any research institution that will be conducting research using nonhuman animal subjects must have an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC). IACUCs review the proposed experiments to ensure an appropriate rationale for using nonhuman animals as subjects and ensure ethical treatment of those subjects.

    Furthermore, many researchers who work with nonhuman animal subjects adhere to the Three R's: Replacement, Reduction, and Refinement (Russell & Burch, 1959).

    Replacement suggests that researchers should seek to use inanimate systems as a replacement for nonhuman animal subjects whenever possible. Furthermore, replacement is also suggested to replace higher level organisms with lower level organisms whenever possible. The idea is that instead of choosing a primate to conduct the study, researchers are encouraged to use a lower level animal such as an invertebrate (a sea slug, for example) to conduct the study.

    Reduction refers to reducing the number of nonhuman animal subjects that will be used in the particular study. The idea here is that if a study can learn sufficient information from one nonhuman animal, then they should only use one.

    Finally, refinement is about how the nonhuman animals are cared for. The goal is to minimize discomfort that the subject experiences and to enhance the conditions that the subject experiences throughout their life. For a full discussion of the Three R's, see Tannenbaum and Bennett (2015).

    In conclusion, many researchers argue that what we have learned from nonhuman animal subjects has been invaluable. These studies have led to drug therapies for treating pain and other disorders; for instance, most drugs are studied using animals first, to ensure they are safe for humans. Animal nervous systems are used as models for the human nervous systems in many areas. Sea slugs (Aplysia californica) have been used to learn about neural networks involved in learning and memory. Cats have been studied to learn about how our brain's visual system is organized. Owls have been used to learn about sound localization in the auditory system. Indeed, research using nonhuman animal subjects has led to many important discoveries.

    Human Subject Research

    What about research on human subjects? We do not have to go very far back in history to find situations where researchers behaved in unethical ways towards their human subjects. One of the most famous ethical violations in history is that many experiments were conducted using concentration camp prisoners as subjects during the holocaust.

    Throughout the years, psychologists have engaged in various studies that have pushed the envelope of ethical research, such as Milgram's study of obedience or Zimbardo's Stanford prison study. Studies such as these have led to the development of strict ethical guidelines for human research. As with research on nonhuman animal subjects, there is a committee known as an Institutional Review Board (IRB) whose role is to approve research proposals. These committees ensure that there is an appropriate reason for completing the research with human subjects and that the safety of the human subjects are appropriately considered.

    To further complicate matters, here in the United States, we have our own history of when ethical violations intersected with racial/ethnic divides.

    Indeed, members of some groups have historically faced more than their fair share of the risks of scientific research, including people who are institutionalized, are disabled, or belong to racial or ethnic minorities. A particularly tragic example is the Tuskegee syphilis study conducted by the US Public Health Service from 1932 to 1972 (Reverby, 2009). The participants in this study were poor African American men in the vicinity of Tuskegee, Alabama, who were told that they were being treated for “bad blood.” Although they were given some free medical care, they were not treated for their syphilis. Instead, they were observed to see how the disease developed in untreated patients. Even after the use of penicillin became the standard treatment for syphilis in the 1940s, these men continued to be denied treatment without being given an opportunity to leave the study. The study was eventually discontinued only after details were made known to the general public by journalists and activists. It is now widely recognized that researchers need to consider issues of justice and fairness at the societal level.

    “They Were Betrayed”

    In 1997— 65 years after the Tuskegee Syphilis Study began and 25 years after it ended— President Bill Clinton formally apologized on behalf of the US government to those who were affected. Here is an excerpt from the apology:

    So today America does remember the hundreds of men used in research without their knowledge and consent. We remember them and their family members. Men who were poor and African American, without resources and with few alternatives, they believed they had found hope when they were offered free medical care by the United States Public Health Service. They were betrayed.

    Read the full text of the apology at

    President Bill Clinton shakes the hand of a Tuskegee Syphilis Study survivor
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): President Bill Clinton greets a survivor of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study on African-American men.

    The racism behind the unethical behavior in the Tuskegee study (and other studies) has led to a general distrust of research from some minorities. This distrust in research has led to a lack of volunteers from minority communities in research. Distrust in research also has other consequences, and as recently as 2021 has been cited as a contributing factor for the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on minority communities (Carson, et all., 2021). Unfortunately, when a large portion of the research conducted is on Caucasian samples, it is unclear whether or not the results generalize to non-Caucasian groups. Given the complexities of the human brain, researchers continue to push for a sample that is truly representative of the population at large to ensure that their research results are generalizable.


    In this section, we discussed the ethical considerations of conducting research on nonhuman animal subjects and human subjects. We discussed what rules and guidelines have been put in place to ensure ethical conduct from researchers with their subjects. We also discussed some examples of violations of ethical research practices and the consequences of those violations.


    Carson, S.L, Casillas, A., Castellon-Lopez, Y., Mansfield, L. N., Morris, D., Barron, J., Ntejume, E., Landovitz, R., Vassar, S., Norris, K., Dubinett, S. M., Garrison, N. A., Brown, A. F. (2021). COVID-19 Vaccine Decision-making factors in racial and ethnic minority communities in Los Angeles, California. JAMA Network Open 4(9)

    Reverby, S.M. (2009). Examining Tuskegee: The infamous syphilis study and its legacy. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. (As cited by Jhangiani et al., 2019.)

    Russell W.M.S. and Burch R.L. (1959) The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. London (UK): Methuen & Co. Ltd (special edition published by Universities Federation for Animal Welfare, 1992).

    Tannenbaum J. and Bennett, B.T. (2015). Russell and Burch's 3Rs Then and Now: The Need for Clarity in Definition and Purpose. Journal of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, 54(2), 120-132.

    This page titled 2.7: Ethical Considerations is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Multiple Authors (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .