Case Studies


Authors: Dena Plemmons and Michael Kalichman, 2008

Case studies are a tool for discussing scientific integrity. Although one of the most frequently used tools for encouraging discussion, cases are only one of many possible tools. Many of the principles discussed below for discussing case studies can be generalized to other approaches to encouraging discussion about research ethics.

Cases are designed to confront readers with specific real-life problems that do not lend themselves to easy answers. Case discussion demands critical and analytical skills and, when implemented in small groups, also fosters collaboration (Pimple, 2002). By providing a focus for discussion, cases help trainees to define or refine their own standards, to appreciate alternative approaches to identifying and resolving ethical problems, and to develop skills for analyzing and dealing with hard problems on their own. The effective use of case studies is comprised of many factors, including:

It should be noted that ethical decision-making is a process rather than a specific correct answer. In this sense, unethical behavior is defined by a failure to engage in the process of ethical decision-making. It is always unacceptable to have made no reasonable attempt to define a consistent and defensible basis for conduct.

Leading Case Discussions

For the sake of time and clarity of purpose, it is essential that one individual have responsibility for leading the group discussion. As a minimum, this responsibility should include:

How should cases be analyzed?

Many of the skills necessary to analyze case studies can become tools for responding to real world problems. Cases, like the real world, contain uncertainties and ambiguities. Readers are encouraged to identify key issues, make assumptions as needed, and articulate options for resolution. In addition to the specific questions accompanying each case, readers might consider the following questions:
  1. Who are the affected parties (individuals, institutions, a field, society) in this situation?
  2. What interest(s) (material, financial, ethical, other) does each party have in the situation? Which interests are in conflict?
  3. Were the actions taken by each of the affected parties acceptable (ethical, legal, moral, or common sense)? If not, are there circumstances under which those actions would have been acceptable? Who should impose what sanction(s)?
  4. What other courses of action are open to each of the affected parties? What is the likely outcome of each course of action?
  5. For each party involved, what course of action would you take, and why?
  6. What actions could have been taken to avoid the conflict?
If consensus is not possible, then written or oral summaries should reflect majority and minority opinions.

Is there a right answer?

Most problems will have several acceptable solutions or answers, but it will not always be the case that a perfect solution can be found. At times, even the best solution will still have some unsatisfactory consequences.

While more than one acceptable solution may be possible, not all solutions are acceptable. For example, obvious violations of specific rules and regulations or of generally accepted standards of conduct would typically be unacceptable. However, it is also plausible that blind adherence to accepted rules or standards would sometimes be an unacceptable course of action.


2017 Resources for Research Ethics Education. All rights reserved.