Research Ethics in the Assessment of PhD Theses: Footprint or Footnote?

Journal of Academic Ethics 15 (4):321-340 (2017)
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Abstract

There is an expectation that all researchers will act ethically and responsibly in the conduct of research involving humans and animals. While research ethics is mentioned in quality indicators and codes of responsible researcher conduct, it appears to have little profile in doctoral assessment. There seems to be an implicit assumption that ethical competence has been achieved by the end of doctoral candidacy and that there is no need for candidates to report on the ethical dimensions of their study nor for examiners to assess this integral aspect of researcher development. In the context of ensuring that institutions are fulfilling their responsibility of producing ethically sensitive and competent researchers, it is salient to investigate whether doctoral thesis examiners make comment about ethical issues in their reports. This study analysed an archive of examiner reports to identify the frequency, magnitude and nature of examiner comment about ethics. Although comment was rare examiners provided: prescriptive instruction on ethical review processes; formative instruction on the design, conduct, and reporting of research projects; and positive or negative judgments about a candidate's ethical competence, the latter often aligned with meeting, or not meeting, 'doctoral standards'. The scarcity of ethics in examination criteria and examiner reports implies a silence that needs to be addressed to ensure graduating candidates are prepared to conduct ethical and responsible research.

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