March 21, 2013 | Posted By Zubin Master, PhD

Last month I wrote a blog arguing that bioethicists should pay closer attention to the responsible conduct of bioethics research. Just to recap, the responsible conduct of research (RCR), also known as research integrity, has to a large extent focused on the natural and applied sciences and very little attention has been devoted to interdisciplinary areas of research i.e., bioethics. RCR can be described as a set of norms and practices that aim to ensure integrity in the conduct of research and focus on various aspects including fabrication, falsification and plagiarism, authorship and publication ethics, peer review, good mentoring, data management, and other areas. There has been little research on research integrity done as it relates to bioethics and I pointed to a few studies on authorship and publication ethics that have been published. This month, I would like to raise a question I have been thinking about for some time and an area of research integrity in bioethics I wish to write about in the not too distant future. The question I would like to address is what is conceptual bioethics research? Perhaps a better way to phrase this question might be to ask, what is good conceptual bioethics research or even what might not be considered conceptual bioethics research?

It is really difficult to find anything on the term “conceptual research” and coming from a biomedical science background, I had never heard of this form of research until I transitioned into bioethics. Somewhat equivalent terms are theoretical research, or thought experiments. All research involves the systematic study to develop and increase knowledge. This could mean confirming previous results, challenging theories, and testing the validity of theories, practices or instruments. In a paper co-authored with Dr. David Resnik, we defined research as “a systematic investigation that attempts to advance human knowledge or wisdom. Though research is often associated with scientific inquiry, we do not limit the concept in this way. Research may include scientific studies as well as other scholarly activities, such as philosophical or legal analysis, literature interpretation, theological reflection, historiography, journalism, etc.”

An easy way of thinking about conceptual bioethics research is perhaps to describe it. In this same paper, we outlined authorship criteria for conceptual bioethics scholarship, but these criteria also described the steps of how conceptual bioethics research is performed. The process begins by identifying a topic or problem to study; performing a literature review and interpreting the relevant literature to determine how it informs the problem; analyzing and developing arguments; ensuring arguments are logical and robust; and developing responses to potential counter-arguments. These steps I think are a nice way to begin thinking about and unpacking the meaning of conceptual bioethics research, but to some degree the steps by themselves seem insufficient. I have heard in conferences and coffee room banter that conceptual bioethics research is “opinion” or “scholarship,” but it isn’t research. Of course these comments were made in passing and no deeper discourse ever resulted, but there is a bit of insight into these claims that merits further reflection. Defining conceptual bioethics research is challenging, but what makes defining it more difficult is due, in part, to the way conceptual bioethics research is reported.

For example, bioethicists routinely publish in scientific journals and science journals have many different section headings within their publications i.e., research articles, opinions, commentaries, letters to the editor etc. Not to pick on Nature, Science or their subsidiary journals, but I have yet to see any conceptual bioethics research move into the research section. They are usually labeled as commentaries or opinions. I think this creates a perception that conceptual bioethics is merely an opinion or commentary. It is not! This blog is an opinion; I wouldn’t publish this as a conceptual research piece. Remember, in conceptual bioethics research we critically and systematically analyze theories, encompass the existing literature, and argue a point. Throughout the process, we also evaluate our arguments to ensure there are no circumstances or conditions that we have not given due consideration. If there are gaps in our conceptual framework, we think about ways of patching them. If the gaps are too large, we need to either discard our conceptual framework or significantly retool it. In this way, conceptual bioethics is no different than an empirical scientific publication where we are creating knowledge about a phenomenon through a series of experiments. An opinion is merely giving an opinion, and it does not necessarily have to be backed by much evidence, facts or theories, contain any solid arguments or responses to counter-arguments.

But bioethicists also write short opinions, letters, and commentaries. For example, I have written several open peer commentaries for the American Journal of Bioethics. These 1500 word essays certainly formulate an ethical argument and may include rebuttals to potential counter-arguments. However these commentaries do not involve a thorough literature search and we don’t really flesh out the arguments or consider counter-arguments in sufficient detail. So are these commentaries primary conceptual bioethics research? I would argue no, because they don’t really conceptualize something and argue in a systematic and rigorous way. But this demarcation is not extremely clear. Certainly I am not an advocate for word count being a factor to determine what constitutes a conceptual bioethics research paper. I don’t think it is important if the paper is 500 or 10,000 words, but it is definitely a bit difficult to imagine the intellectual rigor needed for a conceptual bioethics research paper being adequately conveyed in a very short piece.

It is also important, I think, to differentiate conceptual bioethics research from a review article. In science this was easy: a review of the literature was a secondary source that described and evaluated primary research which was always empirical. (I differentiate a scientific review from a meta-analysis). The value of research reviews is commonly recognized by scientists as having less impact in terms of the rewards of science (i.e., tenure, promotion, grants and awards) than performing primary research. Yet I fear some may conflate a bioethics literature review with a conceptual research paper. Of course there is always a background section of a conceptual bioethics publication, but certainly this isn’t where the “knowledge” is being created. The knowledge comes from the novel arguments, critiques, and new ways of thinking about a bioethical issue in a conceptual research paper. Certainly a review of bioethical issues is a valuable scholarly contribution, but I would not constitute this as conceptual bioethics research. This would be a secondary source of information, not a primary source similar to the natural and applied sciences.

It is important for bioethicists to have a good understanding of conceptual bioethics research for two reasons: 1) to develop proper guidance for the peer review evaluation of conceptual bioethics papers, and 2) to evaluate bioethicists fairly. I can’t stress the latter point enough especially because bioethicists can be housed in different departments and faculties which consist of a diversity of academic scholars, some of who may not understand what a conceptual bioethics research project means. It is also necessary to have a deeper and clearer understanding of conceptual bioethics research in order to help understand the epistemic dimensions of our scholarship.

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2 comments | Topics: Conceptual Research


Trevor Ray Slone

Trevor Ray Slone wrote on 03/21/13 4:41 PM

You make some good points Dr. Zubin. My name is Trevor Slone and I will be starting the MS/D.P.S. program at the Alden March Bioethics Institute in the fall, as I just got my acceptance letter this past week! As someone who has both an undergraduate and a graduate background in theology, I feel as though I have somewhat of an understanding of what you are calling good conceptual research. For the most part doing scholarly theologizing requires a great deal of research regarding the information that is "already out there." This is of course because there is already well over 2000 years of theological information to be gleaned, and so one cannot, or rather should not pass information off as original when it has actually already been mentioned by someone else. This is one of the reasons that most theology/Bible class professors (at least mine) require a minimum number of sources for college papers (normally at least 10, sometimes as much as 20 or more, for even a paper as small as 10 pages of less). My wife is a scientist who is almost done with her PhD in Immunology, and she is also working on a DVM, and she too, when she is writing, has to do the same thing for the same reasons. To me this is a part of good conceptual research, namely making sure that you are not passing old information off as new, for that is not only a waste of time, but it is also ultimately plagiarism. However, the almost total uncriticality of thought that has been fostered in our society for the last 30-50 years has gotten us to the point that so few of us seem to even be able to think abstractly, or put another way, as they used to say, to think "for ourselves." It seems to me that this is the second, equally critical aspect of good conceptual research, namely critically thinking up NEW ideas that are logically coherent that contribute, whether substantially, minimally, or anywhere in between, to society in some positive way. It is the Einsteins, the Platos, and the Augustines that we need to rise up and start leading our culture in the right direction, rather than the multitude of drones that simply rehash the same old information over and over in different packages.
Athene Aberdeen

Athene Aberdeen wrote on 03/21/13 10:08 PM

A thought-provoking and very useful article.

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