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The ethics of studying cats and other critters

Image of CatAlice Potter and Daniel Simon Mills recently published the research paper Domestic Cats (Felis silvestris catus) Do Not Show Signs of Secure Attachment to Their Owners in the online open access journal PLoS ONE. The paper created considerable media interest and social media buzz. I barely got by the Introduction and into the Methods section when I thought …’Hey wait a minute! Isn’t this what I have been talking about in the past?’ No I wasn’t thinking about a cats, I was thinking about spelling out ethical procedures.

Back in May of 2012, I suggested that a very important step in the process of science was being missed by students if they did not conscientiously spell out the ethics of their experimentation. Here in the paper by Potter and Mills at the top of the Methods section the researchers spelled out exactly how they obtained written consent and how they would deal with the data:

As part of the protocol for this study, all owners provided written informed consent to their and their cat’s participation. Owners were allowed to withdraw this consent at any time without giving reason, and no data from these subjects would be used. The full protocol, including consent procedures, was approved by the University of Lincoln School of Life Sciences Research Ethics Committee, after specific consideration of the ethical factors relating to both the humans (owners- EA2) and non-human animals (cats- EA3) involved.”PLoS

When I investigated further, I realized that Potter and Mills were following the guidelines of the journal which indicated that: “Methods sections describing research using human or animal subjects and/or tissue or field sampling must include required ethics statements.”

PLoS also very clearly states: “All research involving vertebrates or cephalopods must have approval from the authors' Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) or equivalent ethics committee(s), and must have been conducted according to applicable national and international guidelines. Approval must be received prior to beginning research.”

Since it is near the beginning of the school year, there is still plenty of time to begin talking ethics in the classroom. Students who may already be planning their science fair projects for the coming year need to be aware that there are ethical requirements. As I said in 2012, “It is time to bring ethical concerns into the daily language of the science curriculum by including it as a step in the modern scientific method.” In the written portion of the science experiment, why not have the student write an ethics statement in the Methods section, just as if they were submitting this assignment for publication to PLoS.


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The ethics of studying cats and other critters

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