Ethics, Universities and Research

by Peter Larkham

We have just ended the second successful BCU Ethics Conference, this time focusing on research ethics including four guest speakers on concepts of research ethics, researching children, and fraud in research. The event was lively and informative. The presentations will be available to BCU staff and students on the iCity research community tab (

These are not trivial issues. Ethics should permeate all of the activities of a modern university, not just its externally-facing research. But research, at all levels from undergraduate projects to PhDs and major externally-funded projects, needs to be carefully designed to be ethically robust. Such research protects those involved in the research, whether they might be participants, the researchers themselves and even the reputation of the institution and funding bodies. This is most significant where these might be vulnerable people, such as young people and others for whom the concept of “informed consent” is problematic; and, of course, young researchers are also vulnerable to undue pressures.

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Universities, including our own, have woken up to at least some of these issues in recent years, and have some policies and procedures in place. But we need to ensure that these are both appropriate and suitably followed. Ethics review should not be simply a “tick box” one-off exercise. Research evolves over time, and some research takes years: we might need a continued engagement with ethics concepts and procedures. Ethics awareness needs to be embedded more deeply in staff activities from induction onwards; and likewise in our teaching, at all levels. Our business and administrative practices, and overall focus and mission statement, should explicitly refer to ethics. We should aspire to be known as an ethically-robust university. In that way we could attract research partners, funding, professional and business collaborators, and better students.

I hope that we’ll have another conference, perhaps sooner than this time next year. Perhaps the focus should be on how we embed ethics in our teaching and learning activities. That might attract those who decided not to come today, saying that they weren’t researchers, so research ethics were irrelevant to them!

Peter J Larkham is Professor of Planning in the Birmingham School of the Built Environment, and has led the concluding sessions of both BCU Ethics conferences. His most-cited publication is on the treatment of plagiarism (, though he doesn’t think that it’s his best paper!

One thought on “Ethics, Universities and Research

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful blog post – this is more important now than ever before, with assessments like REF in the UK putting more and more pressure on researchers in many disciplines to be publishing top ranked journals. And of course, as that happens, people take short cuts, and so there is now an interesting correlation between the impact factor of a journal and retraction rates:

    But it isn’t just in the UK – around the world academic promotion and tenure/permanency depend on publication, and this is driving plagiarism in some cases. Just last month a group of Zimbabwean researchers plagiarised one of my articles in a paper they published in an online academic journal. It was a proper journal, albeit a low-grade one. About 60% of the paper was written by me, and they hadn’t even cited my article. After a bit of additional investigation it turned out that most of the rest of it had been written by someone else they’d plagiarised, and the only original material was their abstract, introductory and concluding paragraphs! Needless to say, the journal retracted the article.

    But it makes you wonder how much of this sort of thing goes on, now there seem to be new online journals appearing every week. This only came to my attention when a PhD student emailed me, after having read both my article and the plagiarised article. But how much of this goes un-noticed I wonder?

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