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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

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.

‘Except as required by law’: Australian researchers’ legal rights and obligations regarding participant confidentiality0

 

Anna Olsen, Research School of Population Health, ANU Julie Mooney-Somers, Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney
*Neither of us are lawyers and, as such, our interpretations are as social scientists and HREC members. Interested lawyers and legal scholars are encouraged to contribute!

Researchers’ promises of confidentiality are often easily and genuinely made. However, our experience in research ethics review (Julie through an NGO-run ethics review committee; Anna through formally constituted university and hospital human research ethics committees), in qualitative research and in teaching qualitative research ethics has led us to think about the limits of these promises.

Australian researchers generally rely on the National Statement (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2015) and Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) for guidance around ethical and legal conduct in research. For example, Chapter 4.6 in the National Statement notes that researchers may discover illegal activity and guides researchers and HRECs to consider what researchers might be obliged to disclose in a legal situation and how to best protect (and inform) participants of this threat to confidentiality.

The National Statement is currently under revision (National Health and Medical Research Council, 2016) and the review submitted for public consultation in late-2016 contains a proposal to include additional information on “Disclosure to third parties of findings or results” in Section 3 of the National Statement. Here the NHMRC explicitly state that: “There can be situations where researchers have a legal, contractual or professional obligation to divulge findings or results to third parties”. That is, researchers should concern themselves not only with the legal implications of revealing potential illegal activity, but any instance in which they may be asked to break participant confidentiality.

The recent review of the National Statement extends the NHMRC recommendations around potential data disclosure in a number of ways: it makes much more explicit that researchers (as opposed to HRECs or institutions) are responsible for understanding the risks to patient confidentiality: “researchers should be aware of situations where a court, law enforcement agency or regulator may seek to compel the release of findings or results”. Researchers are expected to anticipate legal risks to participant confidentiality by: identifying “(a) whether, to whom and under what circumstances the findings or results will be disclosed; (b) whether potential participants will be forewarned that there may be such a disclosure; (c) the risks associated with such a disclosure and how they will be managed; and (d) the rationale for communicating and/or withholding the findings or results and the relative benefits and/or risks to participants of disclosure/non-disclosure”. And, researchers should advise participants on legal risks to confidentiality and how they will be handled: “(a) have a strategy in place to address this possibility; (b) advise participants of the potential for this to occur; and (c) advise participants as to how the situation will be managed”.

For many researchers in health, legal risks are a very vague reality and legal intervention a remote threat. They may feel confident that their research does not and will not uncover illegal activity, or that their data would simply be irrelevant to a legal case. Or they may feel confident that they have taken sufficient steps to protect their participants’ confidentiality by following guidelines; researchers working in illicit drug use, for example.

Many Australian HRECs articulate the NHMRC guidelines on legal risks of disclosure to third parties by requiring that researchers inform participants that any data collected during research will kept confidential, “except as required by law”. In keeping with the ethical concept of informed consent, participants are thereby warned that researchers are not able to unconditionally offer confidentially. It has become clear to us that the intention of this phrase, to flag the legal limits of confidentiality, is not well understood by researchers (Olsen & Mooney-Somers, 2014).

The National Statement details some aspects of human research that is subject to specific statutory regulation however stresses that compliance with legal obligations is not within the scope of the National Statement: “It is the responsibility of institutions and researchers to be aware of both general and specific legal requirements, wherever relevant”. Moreover, in the document we are directed that it is not the role of a HREC to provide legal advice. It is relatively rare for Australian HRECs to provide explicit guidance on the relevant legal obligations for researchers, including: how they differ across jurisdictions; what protective strategies researchers could employ to better protect patient confidentiality; or how to best inform participants about the risks of legal action (Some useful HREC-produced resources are Alfred Hospital Ethics Committee, 2010; QUT Office of Research Ethics and Integrity, 2016) Criminology scholars have (unsurprisingly) considered these issues in their own field (Chalmers & Israel. 2005; Israel, 2004; Israel & Gelsthorpe, 2017; Palys & Lowman, 2014).

We believe there are real risks to participants, researchers and research institutions.

Recent international cases of research dealing with illegal activity becoming subject to legal action include The Belfast Project/The Boston Tapes (BBC News, 2014; Emmerich, 2016; Israel, 2014) and Bradley Garrett’s ethnographic work with urban explorers (Fish, 2014; Times Higher Education, 2014) (See also Israel & Gelsthorpe, 2017). On the whole, legal action was anticipatable in these cases as they involved illicit activities and the legal action was driven by law enforcement interest. In some instances, researchers took extensive steps to protect participant confidentiality. In other cases the promise of absolute confidentiality seems a little naïve (and in our opinion, perhaps negligent).

Perhaps of more concern are cases in which legal action was instigated by interested others, not law enforcement. Of particular interest to us are recent cases of tobacco companies using Freedom of Information laws in Australia to obtain research data from Cancer Council Victoria on young people’s attitudes to and use of tobacco, and an earlier attempt to seek data on adults from Cancer Council NSW (McKenzie & Baker, 2015; Schetzer & Medew, 2015). As these cases do not involve illegal activity, it is much less likely that researchers could have anticipated the specific legal actions that undermined participant confidentiality. (The tobacco industry has taken these actions in other countries (Hastings, 2015; McMurtrie, 2002)).

Our point here is that the promise of confidentiality should never be casually made. Researchers have an ethical obligation to think through what “except as required by law” may mean for each particular research project. Although it has been argued elsewhere that as professionals, researchers should be provided the same participant confidentiality rights as doctors and lawyers (Emmerich, 2016), the current state of affairs is that research data is not (necessarily) safe from legal, contractual or professional obligation to divulge findings or results to third parties.

References:

Alfred Hospital Ethics Committee. (2010, Updated September 2016). Alfred Hospital ethics committee guidelines: Research that potentially involves legal risks for participants and researchers. Retrieved from https://www.alfredhealth.org.au/contents/resources/research/Research-involving-legal-risks.pdf

BBC News. (1 May 2014). What are the Boston tapes? Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-northern-ireland-27238797

Chalmers, R., & Israel, M. (2005). Caring for Data: Law, Professional Codes and the Negotiation of Confidentiality in Australian Criminological Research. Retrieved from http://crg.aic.gov.au/reports/200304-09.pdf

Emmerich, N. (9 December 2016). Why researchers should get the same client confidentiality as doctors. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/why-researchers-should-get-the-same-client-confidentiality-as-doctors-69839

Fish, A. (23 May 2014). Urban geographer’s brush with the law risks sending cold chill through social science. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/urban-geographers-brush-with-the-law-risks-sending-cold-chill-through-social-science-25961

Hastings, G. (31 August 2015). We got an FOI request from Big Tobacco – here’s how it went. Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/we-got-an-foi-request-from-big-tobacco-heres-how-it-went-46457

Israel, M. (2004). Strictly confidential? Integrity and the disclosure of criminological and socio-legal research. British Journal of Criminology, 44(5), 715-740.

Israel, M. (6 May 2014). Gerry Adams arrest: when is it right for academics to hand over information to the courts? Retrieved from https://theconversation.com/gerry-adams-arrest-when-is-it-right-for-academics-to-hand-over-information-to-the-courts-26209

Israel, M., & Gelsthorpe, L. (2017). Ethics in Criminological Research: A Powerful Force, or a Force for the Powerful? . In M. Cowburn, L. Gelsthorpe, & A. Wahidin (Eds.), Research Ethics in Criminology and Criminal Justice: Politics, Dilemmas, Issues and Solutions. London: Routledge.

McKenzie, N., & Baker, R. (15 August 2015). Tobacco company wants schools survey for insights into children and teens. The Age. Retrieved from http://www.theage.com.au/national/tobacco-company-wants-schools-survey-for-insights-into-children-and-teens-20150819-gj2vto.html

McMurtrie, B. (8 February 2002). Tobacco companies seek university documents. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Tobacco-Companies-Seek/6959

National Health and Medical Research Council. (2015). National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) Retrieved from https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/printpdf/book/export/html/51613

National Health and Medical Research Council. (2016). Public consultation on Section 3 (chapters 3.1 & 3.5), Glossary and Revisions to Section 5: National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007). Retrieved from https://consultations.nhmrc.gov.au/files/consultations/drafts/ns-section3-public-consultation.pdf

Olsen, A., & Mooney-Somers, J. (2014). Is there a problem with the status quo? Debating the need for standalone ethical guidelines for research with people who use alcohol and other drugs. Drug Alcohol Rev, 33(6), 637-642. doi:10.1111/dar.12140

Palys, T., & Lowman, J. (2014). Protecting research confidentiality: What happens when law and ethics collide. Toronto: Lorimer.

QUT Office of Research Ethics and Integrity. (10 Novembeer 2016). Participants and illegal activities. Retrieved from http://www.orei.qut.edu.au/human/guidance/illegal.jsp

Schetzer, A., & Medew, J. (20 August 2015). Cancer Council spends thousands fighting big tobacco over children’s survey data. The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from http://www.smh.com.au/national/cancer-council-spends-thousands-fighting-big-tobacco-over-childrens-survey-data-20150820-gj3nh7.html

Times Higher Education. (5 June 2014). Place-hacker Bradley Garrett: research at the edge of the law. Retrieved from https://www.timeshighereducation.com/features/place-hacker-bradley-garrett-research-at-the-edge-of-the-law/2013717.article

Contributors

Anna Olsen is a Senior Lecturer at the Research School of Population Health, Australian National University. She leads a number of qualitative and mixed methods public health research projects, teaches qualitative research methods and supervises post-graduate students. Dr Olsen is an experienced member of formally constituted university and hospital human research ethics committees. https://researchers.anu.edu.au/researchers/olsen-phd-am

Julie Mooney-Somers is a Senior Lecturer in Qualitative Research in the Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, University of Sydney. She is the director of the Masters of Qualitative Health Research at the University of Sydney. An experienced qualitative researcher, teacher and supervisor, she has taught qualitative research ethics and sat on a NGO-run ethics review committee for six years. http://sydney.edu.au/medicine/people/academics/profiles/julie.mooneysomers.php and http://www.juliemooneysomers.com

This post may be cited as:
Olsen A, and Mooney-Somers J. (2017, 24 February) ‘Except as required by law’: Australian researchers’ legal rights and obligations regarding participant confidentiality. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/except-required-law-australian-researchers-legal-rights-obligations-regarding-participant-confidentiality

Making Indigenous research ethics a compulsory facet of supervisor development and student training1

 

There is an increasing trend in Australian universities to provide professional development for supervisors of higher degree research (HDR) students (Whisker & Kiley, 2014). Concurrently there is also a move toward more structured research development programs for HDR candidates (McGagh et.al., 2016). Education in Indigenous research ethics for both these groups is essential if we are to ensure that research with Indigenous Australian peoples and communities is ethical. Particularly in relation to nonmaleficence and beneficence; key aspects underlined by the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies and the National Health & Medical Research Council guidelines on Indigenous research. Although it is difficult to quantify, given the lack of an explicit research codes for much Indigenous research, even a cursory look at outcomes of major competitive grants schemes suggests that there is considerable research being undertaken in Indigenous communities by both Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers. Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) procedures provide both guidance to researchers and a buffer to communities through the mechanism of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘appendix’ which ensures that researchers address the key issues of harm, consent and benefit. However, the HRECs should not have sole responsibility in this area.

This is not to say that HRECs do not have a role in this area, but we suggest that HREC responsibility needs to be part an integrated educative framework of Indigenous research development for both HDR students, their supervisors and indeed any researcher undertaking Indigenous research (Trudgett, 2011, Trudgett et.al., 2016). We suggest that Graduate Research Schools and those responsible for education and ongoing development of supervisors and HDR students need to prioritise this area of research education. In our experience, this work is too often ad hoc and left to Indigenous academics who are, in some cases, called on to provide expert advice without appropriate recognition in terms of being a formal part of supervision teams or being part of their usual academic roles. While there continues to be significant under-representation of Indigenous academics working in Australian universities (Behrendt, et.al., 2012), the need for this advisory work can be frustrating for supervisors seeking advice from a limited pool and even more so, for Indigenous academics who are already burdened by considerable unrecognised work (Page & Asmar, 2008).

On a more positive note there are increasing numbers of more senior Indigenous academics who can contribute to this area of universities work. At our own institution, our team from the Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges, regularly provide education for HDR students and their supervisors as part of the UTS Graduate Research School’s structured researcher development program. In the context of the ACOLA Review and the recent Universities Australian draft Indigenous Strategy (Universities Australia, 2016) which indicates that universities should take steps to increase the numbers of Indigenous HDR students, the need for improved capacity in Indigenous research and ethics is clear. It is imperative that Graduate Research Schools and those responsible for research training take steps to actively address this issue. To conclude, universities need to dedicate appropriate resources to the development of supervisors responsible for overseeing the candidature of Indigenous and non-Indigenous postgraduate students undertaking Indigenous research and avoid delegating such responsibility to their existing Indigenous staff without additional resources and acknowledgement.

References

Behrendt, L., Larkin, S., Griew, R., & Kelly, P. (2012). Review of higher education access and outcomes for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People: Final Report. Canberra: Department of Industry, Innovation, Science, Research and Tertiary Education.

McGagh, J, Marsh, H, Western, M, Thomas, P, Hastings, A, Mihailova, M, Wenham, M (2016) Review of Australia’s Research Training System. Report for the Australian Council of Learned Academies, www.acola.org.au.

Page, S. & Asmar, C. (2008) ‘Beneath the teaching iceberg: Exposing the hidden support dimensions of Indigenous academic work.’ Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, Vol 37S, pp. 109-117.

Trudgett, M. (2011). Western places, academic spaces and Indigenous faces: supervising Indigenous Australian postgraduate students. Teaching in Higher Education, 16(4), 389-399.

Trudgett, M., Page, S., & Harrison, N. (2016). Brilliant Minds: A Snapshot of Successful Indigenous Australian Doctoral Students. The Australian Journal of Indigenous Education, 45(1), 70-79.

Universities Australia. (2016). Indigenous Strategy 2017 – 20120, Draft for consultation, November, 2016, circulated to universities, 17/11/16.

Wisker, G., & Kiley, M. (2014). Professional learning: lessons for supervision from doctoral examining. International Journal for Academic Development, 19(2), 125-138.

Contributors
Susan Page – Susan.page@uts.edu.au | CAIK profile
Michelle Trudgett – Michelle.trudgett@uts.edu.au | CAIK profile

Centre for the Advancement of Indigenous Knowledges, University of Technology Sydney. http://www.uts.edu.au/research-and-teaching/our-research/centre-advancement-indigenous-knowledges

This post may be cited as:
Page S andTrudgett M. (2016, 25 November) Making Indigenous research ethics a compulsory facet of supervisor development and student training. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/making-indigenous-research-ethics-compulsory-facet-supervisor-development-student-training

Abuse of prisoners in the United States0

 

Mike Adorjan and Rose Ricciardelli’s edited collection, Engaging with Ethics in International Criminological Research, was recently published by Routledge. Of course, the book examines the likely suspects – ethical practices in relation to studies of policing, imprisonment and vulnerable populations. However, there are more unusual pieces on illuminating the Dark Net, carceral tours, and working in Hong Kong and China. My own contribution (Israel, 2016) examined the sad history of abuse of consent in research involving prisoners and prisons in the United States. It is an account of the exploitation of prisoners and a failure of criminologists to have any impact on the regulation and review of prison-based research.

Consent procedures have been created by research ethics regulators to protect research participants from abuse. In the United States, prisoners have been particularly vulnerable to the exploitative practices of researchers. However, contemporary consent procedures also stop researchers from uncovering institutional practices that exploit non-autonomous individuals. In doing so, research ethics regulation forms part of a broader strategy of self-protection established by public and private correctional services. Some scholars outside the United States have used covert research to evade prison protectionism. However, few have sought to link criminology’s understanding of state and state-corporate violence to the abuse of prisoners by researchers or extend their critique of protectionism to the work of research ethics regulators… I explore how requirements to obtain consent have been systematically evaded within prison-based research in the United States to the detriment of prisoners, but also how responses to scandal have led to the overprotection of institutions at the expense of prisoners’ ability to exercise autonomy, access justice, and benefit from the research process. Sadly, this chapter also demonstrates the apparent irrelevance of criminologists to the reform of regulation of research ethics in American prisons.

References

Israel, M (2016) A Short History of Coercive Practices: the Abuse of Consent in Research involving Prisoners and Prisons in the United States, in Adorjan, M and Ricciardelli, R (eds) Engaging with Ethics in International Criminological Research. London: Routledge. pp69-86. https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138938403

Contributor
Mark Israel is a senior consultant with AHRECS, adjunct professor of law and criminology at Flinders University and a visiting academic at The University of Western Australia.

This post may be cited as:
Israel M. (2016, 19 September) Abuse of prisoners in the United States. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/abuse-prisoners-united-states

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