DECLARATION ON PROFESSIONAL ETHICS
Adopted: August 1985
The involvement of the International Statistical Institute in establishing a declaration on professional ethics has extended over seven years. The Bureau of the Institute, in response to representations by members and a proposal by the Institute's Committee on Future Directions, established a Committee on a Code of Ethics for Statisticians, in 1979, during the 42nd ISI Session in Manila. The Committee worked to prepare a plenary meeting at the subsequent Buenos Aires Session in 1981 during which a consensus in favour of drawing up a code developed: the 'code' was to be prepared for acceptance by the Institute during its Centenary Celebration in 1985.
The Committee was composed of Roger Jowell (Chairman), W. Edwards Deming, Arno Donda, Helmut V. Muhsam and Edmund Rapaport, and it subsequently co-opted Edmundo Berumen-Torres, Gilbert Motsemme and Rene Padieu.
The Declaration which has emerged is the result of an extensive process of drafting and redrafting, of consultation with the entire ISI membership and with the ISI's Sections, of open meetings and written consultations which occurred between December 1981 and August 1985. The drafting of the Declaration provoked much interest and genuine debate which continued into the week before it was to be placed before the General Assembly of the Institute for adoption.
After due consideration and deliberation the General Assembly adopted the following resolution on 21 August 1985: 'The General Assembly of the International Statistical Institute,
1) recognising that the aim of the Declaration on Professional Ethics for Statisticians is to document shared professional values and experience as a means of providing guidance rather than regulation,
adopts the Declaration as an affirmation of the membership's concern with these matters and of its resolve to promote knowledge and interest in professional ethics among statisticians worldwide;
2) determines to send the Declaration to all members of the ISI and its Sections and to disseminate it, as appropriate, within the statistical profession;
3) commends the Committee responsible for developing the Declaration for its thorough, efficient and successful work during the last five years.'
In accordance with the spirit and letter of the resolution the International Statistical Institute is privileged to present to the reader the ISI Declaration on Professional Ethics with the hope and in the belief that this document will assist colleagues throughout the world in the pursuit of their professional goals and responsibilities.
Statisticians work within a variety of economic, cultural, legal and political settings, each of which influences the emphasis and focus of statistical inquiry. They also work within one of several different branches of their discipline, each involving its own techniques and procedures and its own ethical approach. Many statisticians work in fields such as economics, psychology, sociology, medicine, whose practitioners have ethical conventions that may influence the conduct of statisticians in their fields. Even within the same setting and branch of statistics, individuals may have different moral precepts which guide their work. Thus, no declaration could successfully impose a rigid set of rules to which statisticians everywhere should be expected to adhere, and this document does not attempt to do so.
The aim of this declaration is to enable the statistician's individual ethical judgements and decisions to be informed by shared values and experience, rather than to be imposed by the profession. The declaration therefore seeks to document widely held principles of statistical inquiry and to identify the factors that obstruct their implementation. It is framed in the recognition that, on occasions, the operation of one principle will impede the operation of another, that statisticians - in common with other occupational groups - have competing obligations not all of which can be fulfilled simultaneously. Thus, implicit or explicit choices between principles will sometimes have to be made. The declaration does not attempt to resolve these choices or to allocate greater priority to one of its principles than to another. Instead it offers a framework within which the conscientious statistician should, for the most part, be able to work comfortably. Where departures from the framework of principles are contemplated, they should be the result of deliberation rather than of ignorance.
The declaration's first intention is thus to be informative and descriptive rather than authoritarian or prescriptive. Second, it is designed to be applicable as far as possible to different areas of statistical methodology and application. For this reason its provisions are fairly broadly drawn. Third, although the principles are framed so as to have wider application to decisions than to the issues it specifically mentions, the declaration is by no means exhaustive. It is designed in the knowledge that it will require periodic updating and amendment. Fourth, neither the principles nor the commentaries are concerned with general written or unwritten rules or norms such as compliance with the law or the need for probity. The declaration restricts itself as far as possible to matter of specific concern to statistical inquiry.
The text is divided into four section, each of which contains principles or sets of principles followed by short commentaries on the conflicts and difficulties inherent in their operation. The principles are interrelated and therefore need to be considered together; their order of presentation should not be taken as an order of precedence.
At the end of each section, as here, a short annotated bibliography is provided for those who wish to pursue the issues or to consult more detailed texts.
4.3 Modifications to informed consent
On occasions, technical or practical considerations inhibit the achievement of prior informed consent. In these cases, the subjects' interests should be safeguarded in other ways. For example:
(a) Respecting rights in observation studies. In observation studies, where behaviour patterns are recorded without the subject's knowledge, statisticians should take care not to infringe what may be referred to as the 'private space' of an individual or group. This will vary from culture to culture.
(b) Dealing with proxies. In cases where a 'proxy' is utilised to answer questions on behalf of a subject, say because access to the subject is uneconomic or because the subject is too ill or too young to participate directly, care should be taken not to infringe the 'private space' of the subject or to disturb the relationship between the subject and the proxy. Where indications exist or emerge that the subject would object to certain information being disclosed, such information should not be sought by proxy.
(c)Secondary use of records. In cases where a statistician has been granted access to, say, administrative or medical records or other research material for a new or supplementary inquiry, the custodian's permission to use the records should not relieve the statistician from having to consider the likely reactions, sensitivities and interests of the subjects concerned, including their entitlement to anonymity.
(d)Misleading potential subjects. In studies where the measurement objectives preclude the prior disclosure of material information to subjects, statisticians should weigh the likely consequences of any proposed deception. To withhold material information from, or to misinform, subjects involves a deceit, whether by omission or commission, temporarily or permanently, which will face legitimate censure unless it can be justified.
A serious problem arises for statisticians when methodological requirements conflict with the requirement of informed consent. Many cases exist in which the provision of background information to subjects (say, about the purpose or sponsorship of a study), or even the process of alerting them to the fact that they are subjects (as in observation studies), would be likely to produce a change or reaction that would defeat or interfere with the objective of the measurement. These difficulties may lead statisticians to waive informed consent and to adopt either covert measurement techniques or deliberate deception in the interests of accuracy.
The principles above urge extreme caution in these cases and advise statisticians to respect the imputed wishes of subjects. Thus, in observation studies or in studies involving proxies, the principle to be followed is that mere indications of reluctance on the part of an uninformed or unconsenting subject should be taken as a refusal to participate. Similarly, in the case of secondary use of records, statisticians should have regard to any obligations already owed to subjects. Any other course of action in these cases would be likely to demonstrate a lack of respect for the subject's interests and to undermine the relationship between statistician and subject.
Statistical inquiries involving deliberate deception of subjects (by omission or commission) are rare and extremely difficult to defend. Clear methodological advantages exist for deception in some psychological studies, for instance, where revealing the purpose would tend to bias the responses. But, as Diener and Crandall (1978) have argued 'science itself is built upon the value of truth'; thus deception by scientists will tend to destroy their credibility and standing (see Clause 3.1). If deception were widely practised in statistical inquiries, subjects would, in effect, be taught not to 'trust those who by social contract are deemed trustworthy and whom they need to trust' (Baumrind, 1972).
Nonetheless, it would be as unrealistic to outlaw deception in statistical inquiry as it would be to outlaw it in social interaction. Minor deception is employed in many forms of human contact (tact, flattery, etc.) and statisticians are no less likely than the rest of the population to be guilty of such practices. It remains the duty of statisticians and their collaborators, however, not to pursue methods of inquiry that are likely to infringe human values and sensibilities. To do so, whatever the methodological advantages, would be to endanger the reputation of statistics and the mutual trust between statisticians and society which is a prerequisite for much statistical work. (See Clause 3.1).
For these reasons, where informed consent cannot be acquired in advance, there is a case, where practicable, for seeking it post hoc, once the methodological advantage - of covert observation, of deception, or of withholding information - has been achieved.
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