By Colin Thomson AM
Discussions of expertise in human research ethics review tend to focus on expertise in ethics or expertise in research ethics. The former has been described as understanding and producing logical arguments, identifying logical and practical implications of particular positions, detecting invalid inferences and counter-arguments, clarifying and analysing moral concepts to support sound arguments, and knowledge of moral theories, utilitarianism, deontology etc. Douglas regards these features to be a workable model and a necessary but not sufficient condition for ethical expertise of HREC members.
Expertise in research ethics emphasises knowledge of research practice across a range of methodologies, of issues and debates in research ethics and of the legal framework within human research occurs. Gillam considers that research ethics experts, aware of the debate about methodology as an ethical issue, should be able to identify whether a proposed methodology raises ethical problems and how, in general terms, a project could be amended to address these.
Other views are that experience alone is insufficient to ensure expertise and that expertise can be either interactional – the ability to discuss issues arising in a research field– or contributory – acquired through experience and contextual knowledge.  These debates will be familiar to HREC members. Equally familiar to them will be the experience that lack of ethics expertise is not as common a cause for complaint from researchers as lack of research expertise, timeliness, consistency, clarity, justification, courtesy and respect – all deficiencies in the review process itself. Some of these deficiencies may be due to a lack of ethics or research ethics expertise but not all and, even if so due, these also show a lack of expertise in review.
Expertise in review
The HREC review task differs in a fundamental way from review in the familiar fields of literature, music, film or art. There, review is of a completed project, and the review principles require that the response of the reader, listener or viewer be taken into account. By contrast, ethics review is of a proposal – a plan or design – for a future project. It is design review to which ethics review is more comparable: can that field offer assistance in defining the expertise needed for human research ethics review?
Principles of design review were first set out in 2013 by the United Kingdom Design Council and these have since been widely adopted internationally. According to these principles, design review is:
It is conducted by people who are unconnected with the scheme’s promoters and decision-makers, and it ensures that conflicts of interest do not arise.
It is carried out by suitably trained people who are experienced in design and know how to criticise constructively. Review is usually most respected where it is carried out by professional peers of the project designers, because their standing and expertise will be acknowledged.
It combines the different perspectives of architects, urban designers, urban and rural planners, landscape architects, engineers and other specialist experts to provide a complete, rounded assessment.
The review panel and its advice must be clearly seen to work for the benefit of the public. This should be ingrained within the panel’s terms of reference.
The panels remit, membership, governance processes and funding should always be in the public domain.
Is used on projects whose significance, either at a local or national level, warrants the investment needed to provide the service.
Takes place as early as possible in the design process because this can avoid a great deal of wasted time. It also cost less to make changes at an early stage.
A design review panel does not make decisions, but it offers impartial advice for the people who do.
It appraises schemes according to reasoned, objective criteria rather than the stylistic tastes of individual panel members.
Its findings and advice are clearly expressed in terms that design teams, decision-makers and clients can all understand and make use of.
- The context – the design of buildings or land development for use by the public – may appear sufficiently different from human research as to be inapplicable. However, the difference is not as great as it might appear. Human research is also for the benefit of the public and involves human participation. Indeed, several sub-paragraphs of paragraph 5.1.28 of the National Statement closely reflect some of the Design Council principles. Under that paragraph, institutions that establish HRECs are responsible for ensuring that members have relevant expertise (sub-paragraph (a)) – principle 2 of the Good Design review principles
- members have relevant expertise (sub-paragraph (a)) – principle 2 of the Good Design review principles
- review processes and procedures are expeditious (sub-paragraph (d)) – principle 7
- decisions are transparent, consistent and promptly communicated (sub-paragraph (e)) – principles 5 and 7
- any institution using the HREC can be assured that the HREC is operating in accordance with this National Statement (sub-paragraph (j)) – principle 9.
However, a response to the suggestion that these design principles are relevant to HRECs could be that human research ethics review does not operate at the same level of public engagement. Rather, it typically operates within an institutional community. Accordingly, a more suitable comparison may be with the different and newer business of user experience (UX) and/or user interface (UI). This business usually involves graphic or computer assisted design work and it is characteristic that reviews occur progressively through the development of a design. Accordingly, principles for the conduct of such reviews have emerged. These have some common ground with those from the Design Council, as can be seen from the following:
A Good critique…
1 …is aware of the relationship between critic and critiqued;
2 …forms a judgement on both positive and negative aspects of the work;
3 …expresses judgements in respectful and compassionate language;
4 …refers to established principles of good design, not to personal taste;
5 …uses Socratic questions to identify problems without suggesting solutions;
6 …focuses on the work and doesn’t criticise the person;
7 …is mindful of its purpose and the reason it has been requested;
8 …takes account of the other person’s level and needs;
9 … is written in prose and addresses the other person conversationally, and
10 …includes a thank you.
Another more discursive example from the same industry is Principles for a Good Design Critique by Diana Santos.
I suggest that design review is of value for HRECs and expertise in review could be fostered by using the principles of design review as measures of that expertise.
The Design Council principles provide formal measures requiring:-
- Details of the qualifications of the committee members to be readily available to all researchers (principles 1, 2 and 5);
- The line of institutional accountability of the committee to be clearly stated in its terms of reference (Principle 4) – but this principle also suggests a wider sense of accountability to researchers and research participants;
- The criteria for different levels of review to be clearly stated and, where doubt arises as to the level of review, reasons for the allocation of the review are made clear. (Principle 6), and
- The reasons for the review outcome and their bases in objective criteria to be clear; recommendations for amendment to be advisory and the language used in the review clearly expressed in terms that researchers can understand and make use of. (Principles 8, 9 and 10).
The UX/UI good critique criteria offer more nuanced criteria prompting:
- respectful language recognising positive and negative elements,
- avoidance of reliance on or expression of individual reviewer’s opinions;
- suggestions rather than specifications for amendments, and
- recognition of the level and needs of the researcher and the research context.
 Douglas, P. (2012) “Ethical expertise and Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs)”, Monash Bioethics Review, 30(2), 81-101
 Gillam, L. (2004) “Expertise in research ethics: Is there any such thing?”, Monash Bioethics Review, 23 S58-S64
 Sellers, C., Samuel, G. and Derrick, G. (2020) “Reasoning “Uncharted Territory”: Notions of Expertise Within Ethics Review Panels Assessing Research Use of Social Media”, Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics, Vol. 15(1-2) 28-39
 Design Review: Principles and Practice, Design Council, 2019, accessed 26 October 2021,
 DESIGNLAB, 2018 accessed 26 OCTOBER 2021, https://storage.trydesignlab.com/blog/gooddesign-critique-10-point-checklist.pdf
 Santos, D. 2018, accessed 26 October
This post may be cited as:
Thomson, C. (29 November 2021) Expertise in ethics, research ethics or review? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/expertise-in-ethics-research-ethics-or-review/