Although we had a mixed population of participants, we could identify a general pattern for the majority of them. The participants were mainly female Ph.D. students in their thirties, which used animals (mainly rats) for their theses. They were mainly from the paramedical background, with none to little work experience with LAN. The majority of them had a friendly relationship with animals but did not oppose animal use in science. Two in 10 participants were members of animal protection groups. A large number of participants were concerned with the consequences of their animal research, either for themselves or for their animals. This was evident by the most important topics of the e-course they rated. “Recommendation” was the most important route for new enrolments. Overall, the e-course was very successful in improving the attitude and knowledge of the participants. It also developed a state of moral sensitization among many of them.
One of the most important features of LAN courses is the great diversity in participants’ characteristics such as age, gender, university majors, attitude to animal use, etc. This is also documented in previous studies 9,22. However, looking closely, a general trend could be identified among various courses. In fact, the general characteristics of participants in our e-course were relatively similar to previous studies investigating an introductory e-learning course in LAN science 23 and also LAN courses in Switzerland 22. The majority of participants in all these courses were female Ph.D. students aging 26–33 years old. In comparison, the maximum age of our participants was 17 years higher than one previous study 23 and 4 years less than the other study 22. Similar to another study 23 the majority of our participants had no prior experience with LAN.
Rats were the most used species of animals among our study participants. This is in contrast to the worldwide trend of using mice as the most common animal species. We think easier instrumentation of rats could be a reason for its more popularity among our novice population of animal researchers. Practical training was the most sought-after topic following the completion of the e-course. This was in close agreement with the views of the attendants of previous studies 22,24 that rated practical training as the most useful topic of the workshops.
The good interaction between researchers and animals (positive relationship) is shown to benefit animals, researchers, research, and the general public 25,26. The good interaction reduces the animals’ fear and distress 25, and this consequently facilitates procedures on animals. Reduced distress also lowers confounding factors and improves the scientific validity of the studies 26. LAN workers with a good relationship with animals are more satisfied with their jobs, have higher morale, and improved self-worth 25–28. Good human-animal interaction in laboratories, can also address the ethical concerns of society regarding animal use in science 25,26. Some methods of fostering good human-animal interaction are described elsewhere 25. It is also suggested that childhood relationships with animals (even in form of images) could contribute to the development of a person’s cognition about animals 29,30. This cognition consequently leads to positive youth development 29.
However, having good interaction with LAN may have a tradeoff 25. Some people may develop a strong bond with the animals they use, such that euthanizing the animal for scientific or ethical reasons may become very stressful to them 26. On the other hand, taking care of sick animals or performing procedures on favorite animals could lead to compassion fatigue in these people 31. There are controversies among various studies about the prevalence of this condition: some show a low prevalence of the condition 32, and some report a high prevalence 33.
Overall, having good interaction with animals is an ideal state 25 and its benefits outweigh the costs. However, it is imperative to properly address its negative consequences. In this regard, strategies are proposed to reduce morale conflicts 34 and compassion fatigue 31 among LAN caretakers and users.
In terms of the participants’ attitude to using animals in research, our results were in close agreement with a largescale previous study surveying this attitude among faculty members in a university in the US 35. In both studies, the majority of participants did not oppose the use of animals in science (74.5% in our study vs. 79.2%). However, surveying undergraduate students in the same study 35 showed a larger number of students opposing animal research than our study participants (35.0% vs. 25.5%).
However, when it comes to the use of animals by the e-course participants themselves, the condition changes. In fact, 44.8% of those who had completed the e-course (N = 174) declared they are less interested in performing animal research due to ethical concerns. We think that this is an informed choice that might be resulted from moral sensitization and should be respected. It is also shown in a previous study 22 that 2–6 years following compulsory LAN courses, 19% of participants had not performed any animal research, and 5% were no longer used animals. In reality, we have seen many students with little or no prior experience with LAN, who eagerly select a LAN thesis. However, when the experiments begins and they need to run procedures on animals, they suddenly lose interest but feel obliged to continue. This not only causes moral distress for the person but also endangers the scientific integrity of the research. It is also shown in a previous study 36 that students of biology and medicine possessed limited knowledge of LAN experiments. Therefore, in agreement with that study 36, we think appropriate information about the nature of LAN research should be provided to students in their early stages of undergraduate studies. It should then be left to them to decide whether they want to continue in this field or not.
We acknowledge that there are certain limitations to our study. Firstly, the e-course was sponsored and promoted by the Ministry of Health and Medical Education. Therefore, the large number of participants with paramedical backgrounds or medical affiliations in our study may be related to this issue. Secondly, we had a participation rate of 16.2%, which raised the concern that our results may have been obtained from part of the population with extreme views to animal research 35. This is an inherent limitation of many questionnaire-based studies, in which participants are no longer bonded with the topic in question. Nevertheless, we have shown several instances of agreement between our findings and similar findings in other larger scale studies.
Our study suggests that an inclusive e-learning course should provide materials and examples relevant to a wide range of audience characteristics. However, it seems Ph.D. students in paramedicine are the majority of the audience and should receive relatively higher attention. The course content and delivery should be mainly adjusted for adult education 37 in their thirties. Since many participants attended the e-course for preparing for their theses, we suggest future courses to have a specific attention to thesis- related matters, such as need-based thesis ideation, proposal development, and designing LAN studies within budget constraints.
Our results also suggest that although many participants are not against animal studies, they very much care about animals’ wellbeing. Therefore, we strongly recommend that a LAN course lecturer carefully consider this caring attitude. A genuine successful lecturer should develop a role model for animal care that may even exceed the expectations of the participants.
To reach a larger population of audiences, we suggest investing in the enrolled attendees. These people could be the best advertisers for the course on their free will. To satisfy these people, we recommend special attention to developing a caring attitude toward animals among them while building on their knowledge. In terms of knowledge delivery, a successful course should cover a range of topics relevant to attendees’ functions. However, we recommend more attention to be paid to teaching ethics and regulations of animal use, anesthesia and analgesia, and pain recognition. Making the videos downloadable for the participants may add to their overall satisfaction with the course. If possible, we recommend in-person practical training to be provided to attendees that successfully complete the e-learning course.