A new commentary published in Lab Animal positing a hypothetical ethics violation in the treatment of lab animals has bloggers disagreeing on the merits of such case studies in ethics training for researchers. In the case study, a postdoc at "Great Eastern University" was found to have cut corners when operating on lab animals, leading those animals to have greater rates of wound re-opening and infection, requiring euthanasia in some cases. The shortcuts included things like "wiping instruments with alcohol rather than sterilizing them between procedures on different animals," disinfecting but not changing gloves, and using a continuous, rather than individual, suture to close wounds. "All of these shortcuts were contrary to her IACUC training," the case study says. The question for researchers is whether the postdoc should be suspended, even though she agreed to close monitoring of her work.
DrugMonkey calls the scenario, in its entirety, "ridiculous." Multiple violations of the training provided by the university and a clear negative health outcome for the animals make this a "useless" case study because it is so black and white, which real ethics cases rarely are, he says, adding, "the real world is messier and I think that if we are to make any advances in dealing with the real problems, the real cases of misconduct and the real cases of dodgy animal use in research, we need to cover more realistic scenarios."
But Janet Stemwedel at the Adventures in Ethics and Science blog disagrees. Sure, the canned case study is unrealistic, she says, but even these cases are useful in ethics training. Cases like this can still provoke disagreement, and can be a starting point for a discussion between PIs and their trainees about more complicated and less obvious cases. "The unrealistic case studies are not where ethics discussions should end, but frequently they’re the right place for those discussions to begin," she says.