Ethics Scenario – for Discussion

Our Society’s Ethics Committee is co-launching articles in our newsletter and student blog with the aim to generate dialog among our membership about the ethical issues we encounter in our research. We encourage you to post your responses below, or submit them to the Ethics Committee Chair (ethics_chair@econbot.org). With permission, we will share anonymized responses in the next issue of our newsletter. If you have an idea for a future scenario, please share with the Ethics Committee via the email above.

Scenario: You are conducting research on the use of a medicinal plant by traditional healers in a rural community. You have met with local government officials and received their permission to conduct interviews. These officials direct you to four healers who are known to use this plant in their practice. You approach each healer to request an interview. You begin by explaining your research objectives and request their free and informed consent. Each of the healers responds differently:

  • Healer 1 is excited to participate in the research and agrees to share everything he knows with you. In fact, he is worried that no one else in the community knows how to use this plant as a medicine. As an Elder, he is concerned his knowledge will be lost when he passes away.
  • Healer 2 does not provide consent for an interview. She tells you that five years ago, she was interviewed by another researcher who promised to come back and share his research findings with the community. However, she never heard from the researcher again, and she suspects he made a lot of money with the information he recorded.
  • Healer 3 consents to the interview, but when you start asking questions about the plant, he becomes quiet. He says he is worried others will use this information without the guidance of a traditional healer and may become ill. After some discussion, he decides to answer the questions, but with short, simple answers that provide as little information as possible.
  • Healer 4 agrees to be interviewed, but after the interview concludes, she asks you not to share this information with anyone else in her community. She is concerned that if this information were to become public knowledge, she would no longer be able to support her family as a healer.

Questions: After reading the scenario, please take a moment to consider how you would navigate the ethical issues that arise. What course of action would you take? What ethical principles led you to this decision? Do any of these resources provide guidance?

Traditional herbal infusion used to clean and disinfect the inside of clay qvevris, just prior to grape fermentation and wine making. Telavi, Kakheti, Georgia, September 2019. Photo credit: Aurora Prehn.

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