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Abstract

Background: Research proactively and deliberately aims to bring about specific changes to how societies function and individual lives fare. However, in the ever-expanding field of ethical regulations and guidance for researchers, one ethical consideration seems to have passed under the radar: How should researchers act when pursuing actual, societal changes based on their academic work?

Main text: When researchers engage in the process of bringing about societal impact to tackle local or global challenges important concerns arise: cultural, social and political values and institutions can be put at risk, transformed or even hampered if researchers lack awareness of how their 'acting to impact' influences the social world. With today's strong focus on research impacts, addressing such ethical challenges has become urgent within in all fields of research involved in finding solutions to the challenges societies are facing. Due to the overall goal of doing something good that is often inherent in ethical approaches, boundaries to researchers' impact of something good is neither obvious, nor easy to detect. We suggest that it is time for the field of bioethics to explore normative boundaries for researchers' pursuit of impact and to consider, in detail, the ethical obligations that ought to shape this process, and we provide a four-step framework of fair conditions for such an approach. Our suggested approach within this field can be useful for other fields of research as well.

Conclusion: With this paper, we draw attention to how the transition from pursuing impact within the Academy to trying to initiate and achieve impact beyond the Academy ought to be configured, and the ethical challenges inherent in this transition. We suggest a stepwise strategy to identify, discuss and constitute consensus-based boundaries to this academic activity. This strategy calls for efforts from a multi-disciplinary team of researchers, advisors from the humanities and social sciences, as well as discussants from funding institutions, ethical committees, politics and the society in general. Such efforts should be able to offer new and useful assistance to researchers, as well as research funding agencies, in choosing ethically acceptable, impact-pursuing projects.

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