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Research Ethics MonthlyISSN 2206-2483

Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Cracking the Code: Is the Revised Australian Code likely to ensure Responsible Conduct of Research?0

 

The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research is presently under review. Issued jointly in 2007 by the National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian Research Council and Universities Australia, the current code is a 41-page document divided into two parts. Part A, comprising some 22 pages, sets out the responsibilities of institutions and researchers for conducting sponsored research responsibly. Part B, comprising approximately 11 pages, provides advice on procedures for identifying and investigating instances of the conduct of research in which those responsibilities have not been fulfilled.

The current proposal is to replace this document with a five-page statement of eight principles of responsible research conduct and two lists of responsibilities, again of institutions and researchers, together with a 25-page guidance document (the first of several) of preferred procedures for the identification and investigation of research conduct that has not adhered to the responsibilities set out in the five-page code.

Among the innovations in these changes, other than a significant reduction in the size of the document, is the proposal that the expression ‘research misconduct’ not be used in the guide on identification and investigation but be replaced by the expression ‘breach’. An important reason given for this proposal is the avoidance of conflict with the requirements of institutional enterprise bargaining agreements (EBAs).

The scale of the proposed changes is likely to generate extensive debate and this will have been disclosed in the course of the consultation period that closed earlier this year. The consultation process conformed to the minimal requirements of sections 12 and 13 of the NHMRC Act. This is a process that publicises, by formal means, drafts of proposed changes to which responses are sought. Current practice is to prefer provision of responses by electronic means and to require responders to answer questions determined by the Council. The passivity and formality of the process tends to attract and privilege better resourced interests. In some of the published debate that occurred during the consultation period, there was much attention to the change in scale and to the proposal not to refer to research misconduct but only to breach. This level of discussion risks ignoring several underlying systemic questions, or assuming the answers to them. It is the purpose of this brief opinion to tease out these questions.

The key premise of these remarks on the existing Code and any revision is that the Code constitutes a form of regulation of research conduct. With this premise comes a centrally important question: what are the aims of the regulation of this activity?

The apparent aims of the revision are the definition of responsible research conduct and relevant responsibilities, the identification, disclosure and investigation of failures to conduct research responsibly.

Underlying these aims lie some broader and deeper considerations. These include whether the purpose to be served by regulation of research is to:

  • protect the reputation of research;
  • prevent waste and misguided work that can follow from relying on irresponsible and inaccurate research;
  • protect the reputation of research institutions; to prevent the waste – or even the risk of waste – of public research funds;
  • penalise those who fail to fulfil their research responsibilities, whether the failures are on the part of institutions or individual researchers;
  • protect the public interest in research by promoting productive use of public research funds, and rewarding responsible researchers and institutions.

It is a regulatory situation not unlike that which faced environmental protection through the 1990s and later and other areas such as oil rig and building safety in the UK. One lesson from these experiences is that where the aims of regulation are the protection of the environment, the safety of buildings or oil rigs, they are more likely to be achieved by giving those who conduct relevant activities the opportunity to devise their own methods to achieve those regulatory aims, methods that are then assessed by a responsible authority against a set of standards. The shift from the tight prescription of safety standards to some form of well-defined and supervised self-regulation appears to have been successful in achieving regulatory aims.

The choice of which of the above purposes is to be served will have a direct and profound effect on the methods to be used. For example, if the purpose were the protection of the reputation of research institutions, it would not be surprising to extend a significant degree of autonomy to institutions to set up their own procedures and methods for promoting responsible conduct and so establishing their good reputation. However, there would be an incentive for institutions not to publicly disclose instances of irresponsible research but to manage these institutionally. Reliance on the need to conform to enterprise bargaining agreements might lend support to justification of such non-disclosure.

If the purpose were to penalise those institutions or researchers who fail to fulfil relevant responsibilities for responsible research conduct, the system would need to define those responsibilities with some precision, so that the definitions could be made enforceable, and to establish an agency with appropriate investigation powers and sanctioning authority to identify, investigate and reach decisions as to whether relevant responsibilities had or had not been fulfilled.

A relevant regulatory model may not be that of criminal prosecution but rather of corruption investigation. There is a public interest that motivates the establishment and operation of anti-corruption agencies. The outcomes of their enquiries can lay the foundation for individual punishment of those found ‘guilty’ of corrupt behaviour, and those proceedings are then taken up by different state agencies. Research integrity policy can be seen to have similar aims: first, to protect the public interest by empowering an independent agency to uncover corrupt conduct, and, second, following such a finding, to prosecute individuals by a separate process. A research integrity agency could be given the task of investigating and finding research misconduct, leaving to employers of those individuals the responsibility to impose consequences. Although remaining autonomous in following their own procedures, and so conformingh to EBAs, institutions would be likely to find it difficult to conceal the process because of the public finding of research misconduct that they are implementing.

The debate so far appears to have left most of these underlying questions either unanswered or to have assumed answers to them. Because this has not been explicit, those answers are unlikely to be consistent. For example, the chosen terminology discloses some of these assumptions. The responsibilities described in the five-page code are in very general form that would present considerable difficulties if they were to be used to determine whether they had been fulfilled. For example, what evidence would constitute a failure on the part of an institution to fulfil the obligation to develop and maintain the currency and ready availability of a suite of policies and procedures which ensure that institutional practices are consistent with the principles and responsibilities of the Code? Or, what evidence would constitute a failure on the part of a researcher to fulfil the obligation to foster, promote and maintain an approach to the development, conduct and reporting of research based on honesty and integrity? The very breadth and generality of the language used in these statements suggest that the purpose is not their enforcement.

A further example is the proposal not to use the expression research misconduct in the document, but to refer to breaches of the Code. The language of breach is applied better to duties, rules or standards that are drafted with the intent of enforcement so that it can be clear when evidence discloses a breach and when it does not. Casting the substantive document in the form of responsibilities makes this difficult. In common language, responsibilities are either fulfilled or they are not and where they are not, it is common to speak of a failure to fulfil the responsibility rather than a breach. The use of the language betrays a confusion of underlying purposes.

The advocates of an enforcement approach have argued for a national research integrity agency, like that in some other Western nations. There may, however, be a simpler, more politically and fiscally feasible model available.

If the underlying purposes are to protect the reputation of research as a public interest, to prevent waste and misguided work that can follow from relying on irresponsible and inaccurate research and to prevent waste or the risk of waste of public research funds, then the mode of regulation would be more likely to resource the training of researchers, the guidance of institutions in establishing appropriate research environments and the public promotion of responsible and effective research. The response to irresponsible research conduct would be directed at the withdrawal from the public arena of unsupported and inaccurate results, appropriate disclosure of these (e.g. to journal editors and research funding agencies) and appropriate apologies from responsible institutions and researchers supported with undertakings for reform of faulty procedures and practices.

In implementing these purposes, it would not be surprising for the system to give significant authority to both public research funding agencies. This could include, for instance, authority to ensure that institutions seeking access to their funds establish appropriate procedures to ensure responsible research conduct, including sufficient and sustained training of researchers, adequate resources and research facilities and appropriate auditing and reporting of research conduct. Agency authority could also include an entitlement to establish not only whether researchers who seek or have access to research funding have research records free of irresponsibility, but also that eligible institutions did not have current employees with such records.

Access to research funding has been a potent motivator in the institutional establishment of human research ethics committees, both in the United Kingdom, as Adam Hedgecoe (2009) has shown, and in Australia where the NHMRC’s 1985 decision required institutions to establish institutional ethics committees if they wanted access to research funds with which to conduct human research. In both cases, the decisions were followed by a notable increase in the number of institutional research ethics committees.

An approach that actively promotes responsible research practice may be more likely to achieve wider conformity with good practice standards than a focus on identifying, investigating and punishing failures to meet those standards. If so, the first better practice guide would be how to promote responsible conduct of research; it would not be how to identify investigate and respond to poor research conduct. Indeed, responsible institutions could pre-empt any such requirements by unilaterally setting up programs to instruct researchers in responsible conduct, train and embed research practice advisers in strategic research disciplines, reward examples of responsible research that enhance both researcher and institutional reputations and establish a reliable and comprehensive record keeping system of research. This is an argument that Allen and Israel (in press) make in relation to research ethics.

Australia has an opportunity to adopt a constructive and a nationally consistent approach to the active promotion of good research practice. It would be more likely to achieve this with a code that was not constrained by institutional self-interest nor confined by a punitive focus.

References

Allen, G and Israel, M (in press, 2017) Moving beyond Regulatory Compliance: Building Institutional Support for Ethical Reflection in Research. In Iphofen, R and Tolich, M (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics. London: Sage.

Hedgecoe, A (2009) A Form of Practical Machinery, The Origins of Research Ethics Committees in the UK, 1967–1972, Medical History, 53: 331–350

Contributor
Prof Colin Thomson is one of the Senior Consultants at AHRECS. You can view his biography here and contact him at colin.thomson@ahrecs.com,

This post may be cited as:
Thomson C. (2017, 22 May) Cracking the Code: Is the Revised Australian Code likely to ensure Responsible Conduct of Research? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/cracking-code-revised-australian-code-likely-ensure-responsible-conduct-research

Research Ethics in the Philippines: a personal journey0

 

My recall of the earliest encounter I had with research ethics is when, as a newly appointed faculty member of the department of obstetrics and gynecology of the College of Medicine (CM) of the University of the Philippines (UP) and concurrent attending at the Philippine General Hospital (PGH), I rushed to the office of the ethics research committee (known as the Research Implementation and Development Office or RIDO) of CM before the end of office hours one Friday. In my hand was a letter, addressed to the then chairman requesting approval of a study I was about to conduct. Attached to the letter was a one page synopsis of the research protocol. I was fortunate enough to catch him on his way out of the office, and doubly lucky he agreed to quickly browse through the papers I pushed in front of him. He then instructed the office secretary to stamp the letter “APPROVED”, and proceeded to affix his signature. It was in the early 1990’s!

His stamp of approval went a long way towards legitimizing the outcome of my research. I was able to collect and isolate N. gonorrhoea from commercial sex workers in Manila and Cebu, freeze dried all 92, and transport them hand-carried to the laboratory of at the University of Washington. It turned out, almost all the isolates were resistant to the standard first line drug (ciprofloxacin) at that time. Interestingly, a few months before, my collaborator from the US walked into our office looking for someone to work with. Apparently, a US male citizen had been diagnosed to have ciprofloxacin resistant gonorrhea infection. He admitted to having paid sex in Manila and Cebu prior to flying back home. Fate would have it that I was in the office when my collaborator walked in. And since my sub-specialty in obstetrics and gynecology is in infectious disease, the rest was history. I am including this in my narrative because ordinarily, researches with no international collaboration and/or funding would not warrant a mandatory ethics research committee approval. If the process I went through at that time could be construed as a legitimate one today!

Soon after I finished the gonorrhea study, I found myself being appointed by our department chairman to be the representative to the same ethics research committee (RIDO)! By then, in the early years of 1990, all basic science departments of CM and all clinical departments of PGH appointed representatives to RIDO. Meetings were conducted almost monthly to discuss and evaluate research protocols of faculty members who cared to submit their protocols. In those early times, these usually were those with external funding such as clinical trials, or those with international collaborations. I seem to remember the chair of RIDO would present a brief summary of the protocol at hand for the consideration of the members present. If there were no major objections, the research protocol gets approved, and the study will proceed. There didn’t exist written guidelines and standard operating procedures for RIDO. That was in the later years of 1990 and early years of 2000.

When the chair of RIDO retired from the College of Medicine, she recommended me as her replacement. By then, the beginnings of guidelines and standard operating procedures have been put in place. The developments in the interest and commitment to research ethics were being fueled not only within the walls of the academe (CM, PGH and UP), but also in the scientific community. The creation of the National Institutes of Health in UP Manila, whose mandate is to spearhead research at par with the international community, played a big role in upgrading the standards of research, and along with it, compliance to international standards of conducting ethical review of research involving human participants. A Fogarty International grant to UP Manila, whose prime mover was Professor Leonardo D. de Castro, PhD of the College of Social Science and Philosophy of UP Diliman, made it possible to create training programs which empowered the academe in bioethics. In fact in the early years of 2000, a Diploma course in Bioethics was approved and offered through the collaborative efforts of UP Manila and Diliman campuses. Unwittingly, for what I consider to be totally less noble reasons, I took the Diploma course. My main reason was not to help promote research ethics specifically. It was really more for my professional development. At that time, I was already a tenured faculty member. But the trend in the academe was for younger members, even though not yet tenured, to proceed to obtain masteral and even doctoral degrees. My thought at that time was I didn’t want to be upended by younger colleagues. So I enrolled and finished the Diploma course in Bioethics. A year thereafter, the full Masteral course was approved and offered. I proceeded to re-enroll for the same main reason and motivation. It took me several years and 3 extensions of the maximum residency rules of the University before I was able to finish and defend my thesis, and get my Masteral degree in Bioethics!

The prime movers of the bioethics program UP Manila were from the College of Medicine headed jointly by Dra Marita Reyes and Dra Cecilia Tomas. Equal collaborators of the program were Professor Leonardo D. de Castro of the Department of Philosophy, College of Social Science and Philosophy in UP Diliman, among others. The multi-disciplinary collaboration made it possible for many others to establish the Social Medicine Unit (SMU) of the College of Medicine to administer to the MS Bioethics program. It also paved the way for the establishment of a coordinated and integrated system of research ethics review in UP Manila, called the UP Manila Research Ethics Board (UPMREB).

The UPMREB created several panels, each one practically a research ethics committee, with jurisdiction over various sectors of UP Manila: faculty of the College of Medicine (who conduct most of the basic and clinical trials); resident and fellow doctors of Philippine General Hospital; and faculty and students of the various other colleges. Using the same guidelines and standard operating procedures, all the panels of the UPMREB are able to review, approve and monitor all researches in UP Manila. It was also around this time, after my few years as chair of RIDO, that intense preparations were made for the accreditation of RIDO by the Forum for Ethics Research Committees in the Asia Pacific (FERCAP). With the efforts of Dra Evangeline Santos, professor of Ophthalmology and co-graduate of mine from the Diploma in Bioethics program, assisted by other staff of the College of Medicine, FERCAP accreditation was achieved. Subsequently, UPMREB and all its panels achieved the same accreditation.

In the meantime, a law (Republic Act No. 10532), called the Philippine National Health Research System (PNHRS) was enacted in May 2013 to coordinate and integrate all stakeholders in health research in the Philippines. It is through the force of this law that the scientific community outside the University through the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) of the Philippine government, in collaboration with the Department of Education and Culture through the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Department of Health, asked the NIH of UP Manila to implement a Memorandum Order which mandates that all research involving human participants shall undergo review by accredited ethics research committees (by December 2015). The DOST, through the Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD), designated the Philippine Health Research Ethics Board (PHREB) as the policy-making body with regards to the establishment, registration, accreditation and regulation of research ethics committees in the country. Henceforth, all academic institutions, all hospitals and health care facilities, and all entities doing health and health-related research involving human participants should submit their studies to PHREB-accredited research ethics committees for review, approval and monitoring. The main objectives are to assure that research participants are not harmed (but benefitted), and that research outcomes are credible.

The PHREB, under the chairmanship of Professor Leonardo D. De Castro, created two important committees: 1). Committee on Information Dissemination, Training and Advocacy (CIDTA); and 2). Committee on Standards and Accreditation (CSA). CIDTA was initially chaired by Dra Rosario Tan-Alora, professor of internal medicine, bioethics and former dean of the college of medicine in the University of Santo Tomas. I had the privilege of being a member of her committee, which conducted trainings for nearly all hospitals and academic institutions in the country. Trainings programs were on Basic Research Ethics, on Good Research Practice, and on Standard Operating Procedures. The objective was to enable participants to create and work in research ethics committees of their respective institutions, be they hospitals or academes. Very recently, Dra Alora decided to turn over the chairmanship of CIDTA to me, although she continues to be an invaluable member/mentor. And more recently, CIDTA is preparing to embark on including a Good Clinical Practice module among its training programs.

The other committee (CSA), initially chaired by Dra Cecilia Tomas, has been in charge of setting standards for research ethics committees all over the country, registering them, and assessing them for accreditation. Three levels of accreditation have been established by CSA: Level 1 are research ethics committees capable of reviewing all types of protocols, except clinical trials; Level 2 are research ethics committees capable of reviewing even clinical trials but not those for products intended for registration with the Philippine Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Both committees had been busy the past 2 years. From a few accredited research ethics committees a couple of years ago, there are now 72 all over the country, many of them Level 3! (See http://ethics.healthresearch.ph for a complete listing)

The Philippine Council for Health Research and Development (PCHRD), recognizing the existence of research projects whose proponents may not be affiliated with institutions with accredited research ethics committees, and in fact providing funds for some such projects, reactivated the National Ethics Committee (NEC). Chaired by Dra Marita Reyes, the NEC is essentially a research ethics committee composed of multi-sectoral recruited volunteers, myself recently included representing the medical field, which reviews research proposals referred to it by the Department of Health and PCHRD. In 2011, the PHREB published the National Ethical Guidelines for Health Research, providing written, country-specific guidelines on the ethical conduct of researches on various fields. (See nec.pchrd.dost.gov.ph). Currently, a technical working group headed by Dra Marita V.T. Reyes, with me as one of the members, is in the final stages of updating the guidelines for 2017!

My personal journey in the world of research ethics continues in my newly-assigned tasks of handling classes in the MS Bioethics graduate program, specifically handling Research Ethics and Research Ethics Review classes. From the one-man, practically ambush approval of my very first international research collaboration, to the current legislated and well-established research ethics system, I have been a privileged witness, albeit by twists of fate more than intent design on my part in many instances, to the evolving developmental history of research ethics in the Philippines. This narration is by no means the complete accurate picture. It is a humble and modest attempt to share a part of my career in the academe as a professional doctor taking care of patients, teaching younger colleagues, doing research on the side, and performing administrative functions.

I am grateful to Dr Gary Allen for the opportunity.

Submitted 16 April 2017.
Revised 24 April 2017 after obtaining permission (and more accurate inputs) from the persons whose names were included in the article.

Contributor
Ricardo Manalastas, Jr., MD, MSc (Bioethics) is a professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Infectious Diseases and Bioethics at the College of Medicine, University of the Philippines, Manila, and Attending obstetrician gynecologist at the Philippine General Hospital.
He can be reached by email at rmmanalastasmd@me.com  | rmmanalastasmd@yahoo.com

This post may be cited as:
Manalastas R. (2017, 24 April) Research Ethics in the Philippines: a personal journey. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/uncategorized/research-ethics-philippines-personal-journey

Ethical Self-Assessment: Excellence in Reflexivity or Corporatisation Gone Mad?0

 

Research ethics and integrity have always been at the forefront of my work, not only because the issues which I explore (self-injury, disability, gender and sexuality) are personal, sensitive and often stigmatised topics, but also because as a disabled, feminist researcher I have first-hand experience of the ways in which power, inequality and appropriation are often enmeshed in research methods and outputs. Conventional ethical protocols which originate in medical guidelines struggle to fully grasp and incorporate such ethical issues, as well as the dilemmas which emerge from social research more broadly. Ethical protocols rarely prompt a researcher to critically examine how issues such as power and marginalisation play out in social research, or even how to address specific issues emerging from their own project, such as how to respond to requests for specific information as in Anne Oakley’s (1981) now infamous research with first time mothers. Ethical review more often consists of tick-box protocols, which ultimately function to restrict who and what can be researched rather than to promote ethical skills, competencies and practices (see Inckle, 2015).

This mismatch between my own ethical sensibilities and the conventions of research ethics were so vast that, during my PhD research, I struggled to conceive how any research could ever be fully ethical and I became stymied with anxiety and doubt (see Inckle, 2007). Happily, since then, I have joined a research ethics committee, taught research methods and ethics, conducted, supervised and even participated in social research. As a result, I have become more reconciled with (although no less sensitive to) the possibilities of research being both an ethical and positive experience for all those involved – albeit when based on a reflexive, ethical sensibilities rather than rigid, pre-defined protocols.

Nonetheless, when I joined my current institution and discovered that ethical review operated on a self-assessment basis http://www.lse.ac.uk/intranet/researchAndDevelopment/researchDivision/policyAndEthics/ethicsGuidanceAndForms.aspx my first response was to laugh, a lot. Isn’t the whole point of ethical review, I chortled, to provide oversight and accountability via external reviewer/s? How does simply completing a self-assessment form ensure ethical competency? Isn’t this just another example of the corporatized university gone mad, where academics take on more and more administrative duties in a role of ever-increasing responsibilities and ever-diminishing autonomy?

However, with time, reflection and some experience – all of which are important ethical competencies! – my perspective on ‘ethical self-assessment’ has radically shifted. Firstly, self-assessment is not really a full description of this ethical review process. Student researchers require formal ethical validation from their supervisor, who acts as a proxy for the institution in granting approval and, in the case of staff research projects, the line-manager takes on this role. Furthermore, in certain situations, such as when required by an external funder or participating body, the researcher is compelled to present their work before a university ethics committee proper.

Secondly, while the ethical ‘self-assessment’ form requires the respondent to answer a number of fairly standard questions about their research project – including, whether deception will be used, are the participants ‘vulnerable’, will sensitive/personal issues be explored – the process nonetheless allows for nuanced and discipline-specific accountability. For example, rather than a ‘yes’ to any of these questions rendering the research unethical and in need of redesign, the researcher is invited to complete another section of the form providing further information which contextualises the project and outlines protective protocols. What is most important, is that these justifications and protections are reviewed in a discipline specific context, thus moving the entire process away from universalised assumptions and locating it within specific field of the researcher. For example, in a medicalised context a non-clinician interviewing those who are defined as ‘vulnerable’ by virtue of their experience of disability and/or self-injury would be considered highly problematic. Similarly, an insider-researcher with shared experience of such a ‘health’ or disability experience would be considered compromised in their role and unable to ‘objectively’ and reliably conduct the research. However, from a social sciences (and rights-based) perspective, using these kind of labels to position certain individuals as compromised and/or inadequate researchers is in itself unethical and discriminatory.

Indeed, ethical ‘self-assessment’ has proven beneficial for my current research regarding the health, identity and social impacts of cycling for people with physical disabilities, including its impacts on their experience of themselves as able/disabled. In a standardised context it is likely that a number of ethical problems would be highlighted with this project: exploring sensitive issues amongst a ‘vulnerable’ group; an insider-researcher (I am a disabled cyclist); and quite possibly the assumption that the topic is so anomalous as to not justify the research at all – it is a commonplace assumption (especially among medical professionals) that people with physical disabilities cannot cycle, despite it being significantly easier than walking or wheelchair propulsion for many disabled people http://www.wheelsforwellbeing.org.uk/. However, ethical ‘self-assessment’ enabled me to position myself, my research participants and the value of the research within a critical social science and rights-based perspective which locates disability as a social identity rather than an individual vulnerability. However, this does not mean that I have avoided thinking clearly and carefully about the ethical protocols. I have taken time to consider the research, it’s potential impacts at the individual, social and policy levels, and to work to ensure that it is a positive and empowering experience for all those involved (including me). I have also developed my information, consent and researcher commitment forms in line with best practice in feminist and sensitive research (Byrne, 2000; Inckle, 2007; 2015).

Overall then, my experience suggests that my initial incredulous laughter at the thought of ethical self-assessment was misplaced. In an era of increasingly regimented ethical protocols which unilaterally apply limited, discipline-specific assumptions across the entire research community, and thereby curb the possibilities of who can conduct research, about which topics and with whom, then discipline-specific ethical self-assessment provides a new opportunity for contextualised ethical review. This kind of approach, coupled with a nuanced, reflexive approach to the development of ethical competencies could offer a significant way forward for ethical review in the social sciences.

References

Byrne, A (2000) Researching One An-Other, pp.140-166 in A Byrne and R Lentin (eds) (Re)Searching Women: Feminist Research Methods in the Social Sciences in Ireland. Dublin: Institute of Public Administration.

Inckle, K (2015) Promises, Promises… Lessons in Research Ethics from the Belfast Project and ‘The Rape Tape’ Case, Sociological Research Online 20(1): 6 http://www.socresonline.org.uk/20/1/6.html

Inckle, K (2007) Writing on the Body? Thinking Through Gendered Embodiment and Marked Flesh. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Oakley, A (1981) Interviewing Women: A Contradiction in Terms, pp.30-61 in H Roberts (ed) Doing Feminist Research. London: Routledge.

Contributor
Dr Kay Inckle
Course Convener in Sociology
LSE
Blog/Bio | K.A.Inckle@lse.ac.uk

This post may be cited as:
Inckle K. (2017, 24 April) Ethical Self-Assessment: Excellence in Reflexivity or Corporatisation Gone Mad?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/ethical-self-assessment-excellence-reflexivity-corporatisation-gone-mad

Intuitive Research Ethics Training for Novices0

 

The pedagogy of teaching research methods, let alone research ethics, is an under-researched field. In this blog entry, two postgraduate students reflect on their classroom experience where our lecturer engaged his students in a qualitative research ethics course, using two novice ethnographers’ candid empirical studies as the basis for discussion. While it is more usual for students to be schooled in ethics via lectures and seminars, what was unusual in this course was assigning the readings without first introducing the students to ethical concepts such as autonomy, do no harm, respect for participants or beneficence.

After Rachel and Louisa introduced ourselves to the other three members of the course, the lecturer placed his audio recorder on the table and activated the red light before introducing the course. In the midst of the awkward silence, we remember looking over to the other students, feeling confused and uneasy. Little did we realise at the time that our lecturer was reproducing the Asch conformity experiment. As the lecturer outlined the course goals and the assessment, none of us were listening, still blinded by the red glare and feeling unusually perturbed. Finally, after a few minutes one of us broke the ice asking the obvious question, “is that ethical?” The lecturer seemed perplexed. Another student translated, “she means do you need our consent for the audio recorder?” “What do you mean by consent?” he asked. Thus began a very different way of learning about research ethics. The lecturer didn’t instruct us on ethics, he believed each person’s moral compass was their guide. His role was provocateur, the class’s role was to locate ethical dilemmas in the readings presented, allowing us to solve them in situ. By asking the question “is this ethical” we had passed his first test. With our permission, the weekly classroom discussions were recorded, and our actual process of consent was part of learning by doing. The raw data for the co-authored journal article Teaching research ethics as active learning details our journey.

Our next substantive task asked us to review a newspaper article describing a situation where a researcher posed as a visiting academic and interviewed staff about their working conditions without informing them that he was their next Vice Chancellor (Lynley 2016).

Lynley, B. (2016, February 3). Lincoln University horrified after undercover encounter with new boss – Education – NZ Herald News. New Zealand Herald.

We remember thinking, “he should have told them that he was the preferred candidate for VC”. Concerned that this researcher failed to declare his prospective identity, we classified this act as a conflict of interest. It is only at that moment we realised the intentions of the lecturer in the opening moments of the class, he had tried to capitalise on a power differential implicit within our group between lecturer and students. The key learning here was to establish “power” as the primary ethical dilemma of research ethics for sociologists. We knew that had any member of our class objected to the recording of our discussions, the audio recorder would have been removed. Whereas with the scenario depicted above, the future Vice Chancellor failed to extend such an opportunity to his participants. In this way, our learning in this Qualitative Research Ethics class was incremental.

The lecturer then asked us to take the perspective of a resident in a community that both Venkatesh and Goffman describe and then share with the class any moments where we felt an unease with the relationship between researcher and researched.

Goffman, A. (2014) On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Picador, New York.

Venkatesh, S. (2008). Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. New York: Penguin.

Our responses, our learning are detailed in our article:

Tolich, M., Choe, L., Doesburg, A., Foster, A., Shaw, R. and Wither, D., 2017. Teaching research ethics as active learning: reading Venkatesh and Goffman as curriculum resources. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, pp.1-11.

The lecturer had two other unstated learning objectives. First, he wanted to illustrate the importance of formal ethics review as integral to the research process. Neither Goffman nor Venkatesh had sought formal ethics review and the class concluded each would have benefited from doing so. However, the ethics review process would have missed many of the “big ethical moments” that emerged while doing research in the field. The lecturer’s second objective was to encourage students to write about their big ethical moments, reflexively, and we did.

Looking back at our first day of graduate school, the presence of an active audio recorder succeeded in providing us with the framework necessary for learning qualitative ethics. The materials selected for this ethics class, mainly Venkatesh’s and Goffman’s work allowed us to take our gut feelings one step further, to discuss and debate the ethical dilemmas presented until we were able to reflexively understand that these social science researchers could improve on their practices. We were therefore able to move from ‘Ah! There is something wrong with this’ to the reasons why it was wrong and how it could have been done better. The critical thinking skills we established as ethics students not only allowed us to dissect the works we read, but helped us to apply these concepts to our own research practices.

Contributors

Louisa Choe holds a PhD scholarship in sociology at the University of Otago conducting a mixed methods analysis of “Do the poor pay more?”
louisa.choe@otago.ac.nz

Rachel Shaw holds a MA scholarship in gender studies at the University of Otago conducting an oral history of the experiences of lesbians during the 1970s and 1980s in New Zealand.
shara267@student.otago.ac.nz

This post may be cited as:
Choe L, and Shaw R. (2017, 16 March) Intuitive Research Ethics Training for Novices. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/intuitive-research-ethics-training-novices.

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