Unethically Obtained Data! What Should We Do?

The history of humanity is full of painful episodes that changed our world view. In the years since the renaissance, there were many atrocities committed in the name of God. Scientists were condemned to death under the charges of heresy. Several centuries later, World War I brought destruction and misery to the planet like never before. However, it was not until World War II that mankind saw the worst atrocities against people. Many prisoners and vulnerable groups were tortured and murdered on behalf of science around the world. Nowadays, those studies raise lots of ethical questions about data collected under unethical and immoral circumstances. Is it acceptable to use that data for the benefit of humanity?

The Code of Medical Ethics Opinion from the American Medical Association states that when using this type of data, researchers should mention in their articles where the data came from and how it was obtained. If people were tortured through mutilations, poisoning, malnutrition, and any other form of physical or psychological torture, researchers should condemn those acts so as to reject those atrocities. I have read scientific papers that list more than twenty contributors and hundreds of references. Hence, for those papers that refer or cite unethical obtained data, a special page could be added to honor people who were forced to participate in the experiments without their consent. We can never forget or forgive what happened in concentration camps in Nazi Germany, with experimentation involving wound, poison, tuberculosis testing, etc. Scientists should add that these methods of research should never happen again. I consider this a way to preserve the victim’s memory.

Many experts argue that unethically obtained data should never be used because it is bathed with shame and human blood. Others think that publishing this type of data will scientifically recognize criminals while their victims would be seen as guinea pigs. Less orthodox scientists suggest that data collected under unethical circumstances should be used as long as it can directly benefit society and save human lives (Halpin 2010). They argue that data obtained through suffering could be used in modern medicine to stop the suffering of other people (Halpin 2010). Therefore, it would be unethical to just ignore data that we already have which could help thousands or millions of lives. It would also be unethical to let people suffer from ethical issues linked to the past (Halpin 2010). For instance, the Dachau Hypothermia Experiments conducted by the Nazis has been used and cited in hypothermia research several times due to its scientific value; however, there are still many scientists that ignore its content due to ethical controversies behind that study (Berger 1990). Another example includes the Syphilis Experiment in Guatemala led by the infamous physician John Charles Cutler who was also part of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment in Alabama. Penicillin had just been discovered in 1929 but it was not until 1940 when it was started to be used medically to treat infection in some parts of the world. Penicillin was just approved by the FDA by March 1944. By the mid-40s, there was an increased interest in STD prevention research that was being conducted on rabbits and mice (Eagle et al. 1948). However, the trend was eventually switched to the use of human subjects as more reliable treatments were urgently needed in order to protect the US military population- where the STD infection rate was considerably high at the time (Rodriguez et Garcia 2013). In the Syphilis Experiment in Guatemala, the purpose of the study was to determine the effect of penicillin in the prevention and treatment of venereal diseases. The study population comprised of sex workers, prisoners, soldiers, and mental health patients. Some patients acquired the infection through sexual intercourse with infected sex workers. Others were indiscriminately inoculated with the bacteria. In 2010, president Obama formally apologized to Guatemala for the ethical violations that took place (McNeil 2010).

Data collected under unethical and immoral circumstances should only be used if the benefits to society are significant. In this way we honor those people who suffered by saving others. They would have not died in vain. We should recognize their memory of those who died “in the name of science” by making good things out of those atrocities.

With that being said, I am using this topic as an introduction to my next post where I will be discussing ethics in the COVID-19 era.


Berger R (1990). Nazi Science- The Dachau Hypothermia Experiments. The New England Journal of Medicine. 322:1435-1440

Eagle H, National Institute of Health, Gude AV, Beckmann G, Mast G, Sapero J, & Shindledecker J (1948). Prevention of Gonorrea with Penicilin Tables. Public Health Reports. 63

Halpin, Ross. (2010). Can unethically produced data be used ethically?. Medicine and law. 29. 373-87.

McNeil D (2010). US apologizes for Syphilis Tests in Guatemala. The New York Times. Nd

Rodriguez M, & Garcia R (2013). First, Do Not Harm: The US Sexually Transmitted Disease Experiments in Guatemala. American Public Health Association. 103:2122-2126

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