A couple of years ago a Swedish marine biologist went on board a ﬁshing boat heading for the Baltic Sea. He collected herrings from the catch, weighed and measured them, and then released them alive, back into the sea. The rest of the ﬁsh, a few tones of herrings, were left to die on deck. The biologist had obtained a permit from an ethics review board to weigh and measure his herrings (Bengt-Erik Bengtsson, personal communication). Without this permit, what he did would have been illegal. No such permit—or anything equivalent to it—was required of the ﬁshermen who caught tons of ﬁsh and caused their death from asphyxiation.
According to a Swedish law that has equivalents in many other countries, researchers need a written permit from an ethics review board before they can collect personal data for instance through questionnaires (Lag 2003:460). In order to obtain the permit they have to protect the subjects’ privacy in various ways; the anonymization of sensitive information is a common requirement. Commercial data mining or market surveys are not subject to corresponding restrictions.
The information about customers that companies freely collect and use is often more privacy sensitive than information that researchers are only allowed to assemble if they anonymize it. As one example of this, a list of the books and journals that a person has bought or browsed can give an indication of political, religious, and other inclinations that she may prefer to keep to herself and those whom she conﬁdes in (Danna and Gandy 2002; van Wel and Royakkers 2004; Hays 2004).
In 1993 the Israeli Ministry of Transportation raised the interurban speed limit from 90 to 100 kph and in 1995 further to 110 kph. This was done in order to reduce transportation time, adjust speed limits to observed actual speeds, and harmonize Israeli regulations with those of the European Union. The raise in speed limits had been announced by the director of the Road Safety Authority as an ‘‘experiment’’, but it was not carried out as an experiment with study design, protocol, principles for evaluation, and cut off points for early termination. Concerned physicians had demanded that the ‘‘experiment’’ be subjected to the same type of ethical review as medical experiments on humans, but they were not listened to. Not surprisingly, the resulting higher velocities led to an increased death toll on Israeli roads (Richter et al. 2001).
These examples all exhibit a general pattern that we may call the boundary problem for research ethics: Research activities are subjected to higher demands on ethics and safety than similar activities that are not classiﬁed as research. Therefore, the boundary between research and non-research will often determine the ethical demands on an activity, so that the demands on it are higher if it falls on the research side of the boundary. Is there a credible ethical justiﬁcation for this difference?
More generally, should the moral appraisal of an activity be inﬂuenced by whether it is part of research, and in that case how should it be inﬂuenced? In order to answer these questions, we need to characterize the boundaries between the ethics of research and non-research (‘‘The problematic boundaries of research’’ section) and scrutinize potential arguments for placing higher demands on research (‘‘Possible justiﬁcations’’ section).
An argument in favour of the very opposite approach, i.e. placing higher demands on non-research than on research is presented (‘‘An argument for reversing the practice’’ section) and ﬁnally the arguments are summarized and a conclusion is reached.