When it comes to human research and ethics review, self-censorship comes in two forms.
The first kind comes after ethics review. The ethics committee gives the applicant feedback phrased as questions, requests for further information, and suggestions. But the suggestions are often taken as having the weight of law by inexperienced researchers, especially students. They don’t realise that they can argue with their ethics committee and show why its suggestions won’t produce the most ethical outcomes.
I once had a student who got a letter from our ethics committee and thought it was a complete rejection of her project. Much like a revise-and-resubmit letter from a journal, letters from ethics committees often start with wording along the lines of, “We cannot approve your project in its current form.” My student ignored the last four words in that phrase, panicked, and thought she was going to have to abandon her project altogether — when in fact all we needed to do was change a couple things on the information and consent form.
‘Talking back’ to an ethics committee can be very effective. Arguing with them (politely, of course) shows you’ve considered the ethical issues in depth — maybe more depth than they have. In my five-plus years of serving on an ethics committee, I’ve found it exceptionally rare for a research project to not get approved after one or two rounds of back-and-forth between the researcher and the committee, even when the researcher doesn’t take on any of the committee’s suggestions.
The second kind of self-censorship, however, it much more troubling and hard to document. This is when researchers decide to change their research — or to give up on research altogether — because they think they won’t get through ethics review, or because they consider it too much bureaucracy to cope with.
Here’s an example. I recently travelled across Australia asking teachers how they were dealing with the requirement of ethics review for student research. Many of the people I talked to said that they just didn’t. One anthropology honours coordinator at a G-8 institution explained www.teaching-research-ethics.com/#!case-study-1/cluk
“It was decided that it was just too hard. So at that point the research project as part of honours was dropped and they were told that they must not do anything in their honours year including for their dissertation that would attract the need for an ethics approval. Students are pointed away from doing anything that may attract the need for ethics approval. We just say don’t do it.”
This kind of self-censorship is far more difficult to counteract. We have no measurements of how many people decided to not do a research project, or to modify their research project, because they didn’t want to have a battle with an ethics committee.
How many research projects have been watered down, made less risky but also less innovative, because researchers felt like they couldn’t stand up to their ethics committees? How many have been abandoned altogether?
This blog may be cited as:
Wynn, L (2015, 27 June) Ethics review and self-censorship. AHRECS Blog. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/ethics-review-and-self-censorship-lisa-wynn