We need to eliminate ethics-washing

By Paola Buedo and Marcin Waligora.

All of us have heard about ethics scandals in science: big conflict of interests from high level universities, selective reporting in clinical trials, researchers working with potentially dangerous techniques without any regulatory control, retracted scientific articles, and so on.

These scandals have an enormous impact on how society perceives what’s going on in science and impacts long-term trust in science. The last two years of COVID-19 pandemics are a good example: parts of the population do not trust science. They won’t get vaccinated. They are denying COVID-19’s existence, hence they do not take care of themselves or others. And this causes enormous global, social and public health issues.

In the last years, some new terms have appeared on the media: pink-washing, rainbow-washing or green-washing. All of them mean that someone or some institution/company pretends to do good actions, like give support to women, be LGBT friendly, or use recycling material, because it is politically correct and a very efficient marketing strategy. They pretend to act in a good way but actually they do not. In some cases, they even act in the complete opposite way.

Ethics-washing refers to all the actions that are widely announced and presented in public meetings, shared on institutional webpages and across social media. They are intended to reflect, analyse, and work on ethical aspects of research but are not necessarily implemented appropriately. Ethics washing is more about being loud about ethics but without taking serious actions to implement meaningful change.

Listed below are 4 examples of ethics-washing. They arise in different settings, both on local and international levels, sometimes in top-tier international research consortia with recognized senior scientists.

  1. “Our research has no ethical issues; we just know that. The thing is, we need an ethics advisor because the funding organization asks for it; unfortunately, we will not assign any budget to those activities. There are necessary things to spend the money on, so could you please sign this report for us confirming that we are OK with the ethics part?”.
  2. “Our research proposal is almost finished. The only thing missing is the ethics part, but in our experience, it is more of a tick box exercise. Would you help to check the expected ones in your spare time?”.
  3. “It’s good to have you here, but you will not have any work to do because we are a group of experienced researchers. We know how-to do-good science”.
  4. “We have already prepared the informed consent forms. We just need the participants to sign them. Do it quick please! Participants will not understand anyway. We need to collect this as fast as possible”.

This way of thinking may be understandable. Being ethicists, we are also researchers, and we face mountains of administrative work which consume time we could better devote to our research. We too, need to present our research protocols to ethics committees, prepare informed consent forms and explain the research to participants. But we are aware that these activities, often unappealing, are at the very core of science itself. They allow for sustainable scientific progress by mitigating the risk for participants and society.

Conducting science without ethics, or even worse – pretending to use ethics in science by ethics-washing negatively impacts how we conduct science. Science requires trust. The data we collect, and knowledge we build, affect human beings, societies, and the environment, and must be conducted responsibly. Our scientific work does not finish in the laboratory. It actually starts there and has the ultimate goal of generating knowledge and improving life.

Let us stop pretending we use ethics in science and really embed ethics into scientific activities. It is possible to do so. We are currently working with an international consortium within a research project aiming to address the applicability of gene therapy in osteoarthritis and intervertebral disc degeneration. The project is in a pre-clinical, laboratory phase. We are able to discuss with researchers every-day and co-identify ethical challenges in real-time and on the spot. Together we are building a realistic framework to improve research integrity in real time. We are in the place where ethics is not being washed, but where it flourishes.


Authors: Paola Buedo and Marcin Waligora

Affiliation: Research Ethics in Medicine Study Group (REMEDY), Department of Philosophy and Bioethics, Jagiellonian University Medical College.

Competing interests: None declared

Social media accounts: Twitter @pao_buedo and @m_waligora

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