Interpersonal, Team-Based, and Organizational Ethical Dilemmas

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Although less frequently discussed, there are a number of additional ethical dilemmas that can arise in the context of disaster research related to interpersonal, team-based, and organizational relationships.

This can include harassment and/or discrimination in the field, issues and conflicts within research teams, and even incongruence between the ethics of the researcher and partner organization(s), all of which pose a number of ethical challenges and considerations to those involved.

Harassment and/or discrimination in the field is an incredibly complex ethical issue in disaster research. Although discriminatory behaviors, actions, and harassment commonly happen along gender, racial and ethnic, and sexual identity lines, these issues are not merely about one’s identities in and of themselves but about dynamics and relations of power. It is therefore important to be aware of how power differences in and outside of the field can shape experiences of harassment and discrimination.

Caution tape wrapped around a fence

Additional conflicts can occur when working in research teams or partnering with organizations and institutions outside one’s own.​1​ For instance, a partner organization could threaten to withhold access to a site unless the researcher acts in a way that goes against their own ethical and moral principles. This could occur in instances such as requiring the researcher to gather data “no matter the cost” or to “bend the rules” to gain access to particularly vulnerable populations. In these cases, it can be tricky to navigate the boundaries between one’s personal ethical guidelines and the commitments and responsibilities they are expected to uphold in their work with another organization, especially if one’s research is contingent upon funding and/or support from the organization.​2​

Working in interdisciplinary teams, which is becoming increasingly common in the hazards and disaster field, also has its own set of ethical challenges. A successful interdisciplinary research team requires that investigators have an understanding of each other’s disciplines, including familiarity with communication styles, methodologies, and research perspectives. Researchers must be able to trust their colleagues to be honest and respectful in order to conduct research that is competent, rigorous, and ethical.​3​ If an interdisciplinary team lacks these qualities, then they will likely encounter conflict that may impact the integrity of the research. 

Additionally, publishing with teams of researchers can also introduce interpersonal conflicts and tensions, as individual researchers may have different goals, motives, and values in their work. With the increasing pressure to “publish or perish” within academia, authorship ethics has been a major concern as cases of self-plagiarism, duplicate publications, and the improper inclusion and ordering of authors on publications have increased.​4​ Distortion of authorship credit is a particular concern among junior researchers who often have less power to negotiate with more senior collaborators.

Using Academic Seniority to Distort Authorship

Excerpt from Kwok’s The White Bull Effect: Abusive Coauthorship and Publication Parasitism:

“Interpersonal relationships are an important ingredient in authorship arrangements but inexperienced, junior collaborators are most vulnerable in negotiating the authorship list and order. Unscrupulous senior researchers can use their experience to distort the membership and order of authors on publications and conference presentations. The neophyte researcher would reasonably expect first authorship after making major contributions to planning, data acquisition, and writing of the manuscript. Most surveys of medical researchers find that the first author is generally acknowledged for key contributions to planning, conduct, and writing of the project. The general perception of what constitutes grounds for the remaining coauthorship roles and publication position are, however, mixed, except for the last author, who is often seen as the laboratory/group head. […] Many academics and researchers in their medical faculty were not cognizant of authorship guidelines, disagreed with them, or ignored them.”​5​

  1. 1.
    Parker M, Kingori P. Good and bad research collaborations: Researchers’ views on science and ethics in global health research. PLOS ONE. 2016;11(10). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0163579

  2. 2.
    Morris N. Providing ethical guidance for collaborative research in developing countries. Research Ethics. 2015;11(4). doi:10.1177/1747016115586759

  3. 3.
    Gilligan JM. Expertise across disciplines: Establishing common ground in interdisciplinary disaster research teams. Risk Analysis. Published online 2019. doi:10.1111/risa.13407

  4. 4.
    Boff G. Ethics among scholars in academic publishing. In: Proceedings of the Information Systems Educators Conference ISSN (Vol. 2167); 2012:1435-1444.

  5. 5.
    Kwok LS. The White Bull effect: Abusive coauthorship and publication parasitism. Journal of Medical Ethics. 2005;31(9). doi:10.1136/jme.2004.010553