Business collaboration in non-medical research with human participants


Erika Löfström

Business collaboration in non-medical research with human participants

Ethical dilemmas arise where the different premises and goals of the world of business and the world of science intersect.

It has become increasingly popular for the research activities of universities and other higher education institutions to enter into collaboration with the world of business. This article examines the motives, benefits and challenges of collaboration and identifies the ethical questions that arise in such partnerships. In discussing these questions, it is also essential to consider the responsibilities and obligations of the researcher.

This article focuses on research conducted on human subjects in the fields of the humanities and social sciences. Business collaboration in medical research, for example, is thus outside the remit of this article. The ethical questions regarding business collaboration partly draw on earlier literature, and partly on the author’s experience of preliminary ethical review in the human sciences.

The motives, benefits and challenges of business collaboration

There are a wide range of motives for collaboration. For a researcher, cooperation with a commercial company opens up new research opportunities, opportunities to put the research findings to beneficial and practical use, involvement in developing new technologies and their applications, an opportunity to develop research methods thanks to developing technologies, and an opportunity to familiarise students with the world of business. From the company’s point of view, collaboration with a university offers a route to the latest knowledge and methodological expertise, and the company is able to make use of the researcher’s know-how. Cooperation with a university or another higher education institution may boost competitiveness and enable resources to be saved or used more efficiently. Collaboration with a university also serves as a channel for recruiting gifted students.

Business collaboration has long been common in the fields of medicine and technology, in which practices are more developed and well rooted in the operational environment. Up until now, in many fields in the humanities and social sciences collaboration with business has largely been initiated from interest on the part of individual researchers rather than being a general practice. In recent years, universities have invested in supporting business collaboration in these fields too. Universities’ research services organise “pitching” exercises and events for researchers and offer support and training to researchers conducting research that could interest companies.

Up until now, in many fields in the humanities and social sciences collaboration with business has largely been initiated from interest on the part of individual researchers rather than being a general practice.

A new feature is that these kinds of support services are increasingly being targeted at the social sciences and humanities, in which business collaboration is still relatively rare. Universities are under pressure to find new forms of funding for research alongside traditional channels, and collaboration with businesses offers this opportunity. Collaboration with business may produce prestige for the university and the researcher, as well as for the company. At the same time, scientists may have concerns about damage to their reputation as an independent researcher and being labelled as providing marketing for the company.

The researcher may similarly be worried about the unforeseen consequences of the commercialisation of research findings, when from the researcher’s viewpoint the emphasis is on questions of ethical responsibility. Additionally, the company may be primarily interested in product development and the application of research findings, while the researcher, who has a need to develop their own scientific field, is steered by theoretical interests. It has also been suggested that business collaboration leads to a reduction in the participation of gifted researchers in teaching, with negative consequences for the university’s teaching role. It could be asked whether collaboration with business serves the interests of the university if the time spent on business collaboration is time taken away from the university’s key mission. On the other hand, a researcher who carries out collaboration with business may also bring a new, and much needed, angle to their teaching.

Ethical questions in business collaboration in the human sciences

Researchers have ethical guidelines, as do many companies. Central ethical principles when conducting research on human subjects are respecting the right to self-determination, privacy and data protection of the research subject, and avoiding harm. The companies’ ethical guidelines emphasise obligations to involved parties and stakeholders, the company’s values and the behaviour and actions of employees. Ethical dilemmas arise where the different premises and goals of the world of business and the world of science intersect.

Open science, the applied value of research findings and publishing findings

The ideals of open science and that science must be able to be questioned on the one hand, and the company’s need to protect its competitive advantage and the positive public image of its products or services on the other hand, may end up on a collision course. To the researcher, data have an absolute value in its own right, irrespective of whether or not it has an applied value. To the company, data become valuable once it is applied, for example, in developing a product or service concept. Publishing research findings is an essential tool in gaining merit in a research career, where there is also a personal interest driving the publication of research findings.

From the company’s point of view, research findings that do not support the interpretation of the benefit or advantage offered by the service or product are particularly problematic. In the company’s view, it may also be disloyal to stakeholders to publicise findings that question the results of product development. In cases where the findings are not published or exposed to criticism, we can ask ourselves whether the data are scientific data at all, if no room for the self-correcting mechanism of scientific findings exists within the business collaboration structure.

Conflicts may also arise regarding the question of whether the goal of the research is predominantly product development or the creation of scientific data. From the company’s point of view, the researcher’s theorisations may be a waste of time, while the researcher considers it essential to participate in developing the knowledge base of their own scientific field.

Research has found that reporting on research conducted through university-business collaboration has been angled to emphasise positive or favourable findings. This may, of course, also be a consequence of the unwillingness of science journals to publish findings whose results are zero. From the point of view of open and independent science, however, it is important that the researcher retains the power to decide when and where they are going to publish their research findings. In the case of research commissioned and paid for entirely by the company, the situation is different, but if the research involves public funding, the researcher should have the right to decide on its publication. This is also a requirement from many science funding bodies.

Reliability and usefulness of the research

In addition to publishing findings, conflicts between doing research and the regularities of the business world arise regarding how quickly research is required to produce or expected to produce results. From the point of view of the company, it is beneficial if the researched data can be put to use as quickly as possible. This aim may be seen in research design, with collection of material organised into phases that are efficient in terms of use of time. However, for example, changes in behaviour and learning that are typical focuses of interest in many fields in the human sciences are quite difficult to map reliably. Different longitudinal studies would usually be desirable in order to be able to say something relatively reliable about the direction in which changes are moving over a longer time period. Time pressures can lead to corners being cut in research design at the expense of the reliability of the research.

Conflicts between doing research and the regularities of the business world arise regarding how quickly research is required to produce or expected to produce results.

In non-medical fields which study people and their behaviour, it is generally often difficult, if not impossible, to survey the entire spectrum of influential factors. For example, changes in behaviour and attitudes are often affected by many factors that cannot be included in research but whose impacts cannot be ruled out. This being the case, the researcher may find that the data produced by means of the research are considerably more uncertain, while the company would prefer clearer answers and is eager to seize on positive findings from the company’s viewpoint. The researcher may be unwilling to draw firm conclusions as the research findings are fundamentally often associated with many uncertainty factors. Even when mutual understanding is reached regarding publishing the findings, differences of opinion may arise regarding their interpretation and even the research design may ultimately be an unsatisfactory compromise solution in terms of the reliability of the research.

The necessity of the research and passing on the benefits it produces

Views on the necessity of research may be founded on differing values. For example, the product studied may produce momentary satisfaction on the part of the research subjects and possibly a profit for the company, but from the point of view of the researcher it may be questionable whether the product or service produces any actual benefit. If public funding is involved, it is essential to weigh up the necessity of the research and its benefits for its target group and for science in a broader sense. The researcher’s ethical choices also include considering what kind of research they want to be involved in furthering.

Another question that may also be relevant regarding collaboration between the university and the company is how the benefits of the research are passed on to the target group. For example, in researching the use of new technology or digital applications in teaching, there may be a temptation to carry out the research in schools, where there are motivated teachers and students and where the learning results are known to be good. The people towards whom different tests and interventions are targeted is a central ethical choice aimed at passing on the benefits of research.

Voluntary participation and the use of incentives

Participation in research should fundamentally be voluntary and unpressured. Significantly high compensation leads to a pressure to participate, and voluntary participation suffers. Unlike in medical research, no basis for paying compensation is regulated in other human science research.

From the company’s point of view, for example, compensation of a hundred or a few hundred euros might not seem very significant recompense for the research subject’s time and trouble, but from the point of view of the research, such a large amount would be certain to influence willingness to participate. Broad or wide-ranging data cannot be bought in this way. The researcher must highlight the importance of voluntary participation in research in the light of the right to self-determination to those collaborative partners who are not familiar with this aspect of research ethics.

Final remarks

Some of the challenges that business collaboration may bring with it in non-medical research in the human sciences have been raised above. In areas in which business collaboration has traditionally been minimal, researchers are unused to working with companies. Ethical viewpoints are not necessarily raised as a topic of conversation. To safeguard the ethical nature of the research, it might be useful for universities to draw up sufficient guidelines to provide a framework in this respect. Such guidelines would make it more natural for researchers to bring up ethical questions relating to research in discussions. Before carrying out research, the researcher should at least agree:

1. whether the research design is sufficient for producing reliable data
2. the right to decide on the publication of the research findings
3. rights associated with handling and storing material
4. the amount of compensation paid to research subjects and
5. sufficiently describing the business collaboration to research subjects

At the same time, it may be necessary for the university or other higher education institution and the individual researcher and their group to make their goals clear: What is the aim of collaboration with business? What issues are open to negotiation? What things are non-negotiable?

Erika Löfström, Professor of Education, University of Helsinki

Further information:

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Isomäki, H., Leino, O., Pajunen, J. & Wirman, H. (2007). Working within the varying interests between academic and industrial ICTs research: Ethical dilemmas and individual researchers’ accountabilities. Fifth International Critical Management Studies Conference, 11–13 July, 2007. The University of Manchester, Manchester, U.K., pp. 58–59.
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