Learning about research

After working my way through the tutorial for the Tri-Council Policy Statement (2ndedition): Research Involving Humans (TCPS 2) Course on Research Ethics (CORE), I was amazed that researchers could willingly undertake some of the very unethical research projects in the past.

traffic sign - coloured
Frankes, Retrieved from openclipart.org

Throughout history, the belief that the “end justified the means” has been strong. This allowed a number of horrifying research projects to take place. Granted, some projects were allowed to start due to the ignorance of the researchers in how damaging the project could potentially be, such as the Stanford Prison Experiment. However, far more were not only allowed to start, but to continue even though the researchers and funders involved knew better.

Perhaps the most famous would be the horrific experiments that the Nazis completed on their prisoners during WWII. These became internationally known during the Nuremberg Trials. “The actions were so despicable that 20 physicians were put on trial in Nuremberg for violation of the Hippocratic Oath and behaviour incompatible with their education and profession” (N. MacDonald, R. Stanwick, & A. Lynk, 2014).

Residential school
Retrieved from Abuse, http://www.residentialschool.ca/indian-residential-schools-5300-alleged-abusers-located-ottawa/

Justice was served, at least with regards to the Nazis and their experiments.

The Nuremberg Code of Medical Ethics was drafted in 1947. In 1964, the World Medical Association (WMA) adopted the Declaration of Helsinki to address the ethical principles for research involving humans. During the time from the start of the Nuremberg Trials to the drafting of the Declaration of Helsinki, any researcher, at least in the developed countries such as Canada and the USA, would have been well aware of the need to respect the dignity of the subjects of any research.

Unfortunately, some Canadian researchers seem to feel that the Nuremberg Code did not apply to them. Just recently, information has come to light about the research conducted on Aboriginal children in the Residential Schools, which began in 1942 and ended in 1952, five years after the first draft of the Nuremberg Code that listed recommendations for experiments completed on humans. Perhaps the researchers of the Aboriginal studies could claim “ignorance” due to the tight timelines. However, when we analyze the purpose of the experiments, it is quickly realized that the potential results were already well known even before the experiments began (MacDonald, Stanwick, & Lynk, 2014). These experiments should never have even started, much less continued after the world analyzed the Nazis’ experiments during WWII.

Slow Road Sign
schoolfreeware, Retrieved from openclipart.org.

There have been other unethical research projects that have been undertaken in Canada. In his paper, Research Ethics Boards: A Historical Background, Douglas Kinsella, MD (2010) lists a few (unbelievably) unethical research projects in both Canada and the USA
and calls for the Tri-Council Code of Conduct to move from a non-legislated policy to a legislated policy in order to prevent continued lack of protection for research subjects. Let’s hope that some of Dr. Kinsella’s recommendations were implemented in the current TCPS 2, that researchers will never be able to receive funding and support for unethical research in this country again, and that those who are found to be guilty of conducting unethical research are held accountable for their crimes.


MacDonald, N., Stanwick, $., & Lynk, A. (2014). Canada’s shameful history of nutrition research on residential school children: The need for strong medical ethics in Aboriginal health research. Paediatr Child Health. 2014 Feb; 19(2): 64; retrieved http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3941673/.



  1. Martha,
    What a powerful Blog. I was captivated by your knowledge on the Nuremberg trials. Have you ever been to Nuremberg? I was fortune to go on a river boat cruise down the Danube River; it was an unbelievable experience. We took a tour in Nuremberg whereby we visited Courtroom 600, we went and stood where the Nazi propaganda rallies were held…overwhelming feeling standing there as the guide spoke of the atrocities that took place. The history from this event and others that you speak about in your Blog help shape our views on research from its rich history; be them horrific unspeakable events that we should never forget or great findings that make changes in any number of the diverse disciplines research touches. The Geneva Convention, Nuremberg Code and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are to name but 3 legal documents that stemmed from these events.
    Thank you,

    1. Hi Debbie:
      No, unfortunately, I have never been to see any of the sites associated with that event. I can imagine your experience would have been quite powerful. And, yes, you are absolutely correct in pointing out that these horrific events have also helped shape our views on research, how it should be conducted, and why.

      For this blog, I wanted to find out about unethical research that was committed in Canada since the TCPS2 tutorial contained research conducted in the States only. I wanted examples of Canadian research gone wrong. I stumbled upon the paper by Douglas Kinsella (2010), who speaks about the Nuremberg trials. That led me down a few other paths to find more information. I also researched the newly uncovered studies on Aboriginal children in residential schools. The articles written about those studies also refer back to the Nuremberg Trials.

      We need to remember the “why” behind the policies that shaped our understanding and ensure that they are strictly enforced.

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