Jess Carniel, University of Southern Queensland
One of the challenges faced by university ethics review boards relates to how the needs of diverse research communities can be best served. Australian Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) face the challenge of being viewed as part of a wider administrative assemblage that, to many researchers, represents a hurdle to research activity. As an anecdotal illustration, a cursory search of social media posts dealing with ethics review boards reveals that researchers are frustrated by ‘obstructive’ committees that are ‘out of touch’ with research practice. (Indeed, our searches revealed a post where one user posted a picture of Edvard Munch’s The Scream to illustrate their frustrations, while in another an image of a traffic jam was used). A search of the scholarly literature on the topic yields similar results: HRECs are seen to be symptomatic of bureaucratic compliance cultures that hinder rather than support research activity. In short, they are seen as more “foe” than “friend” in the research process.
Although criticisms of HRECs are found across all disciplines, a particularly significant trend is evident in accounts arising from the humanities and social sciences (HASS). These disciplines often highlight the mismatch between their research methodologies and the requirements of the ethics review process. This in part stems from perceptions (in some ways valid) that the review process and formulations of research ethics continue to bear the marks of their historical foundations in the biomedical and clinical sciences. Australia’s NHMRC has sought to respond to these criticisms by including HASS experts in their revisions of the National Statement, but many HASS researchers completing ethics applications still feel as though they are fitting square pegs into round holes.
For some institutions, the implementation of discipline-specific HREC sub-committees in schools or faculties goes some way toward addressing the issue of being misunderstood by committees unfamiliar with particular methods or protocols. However, this may not be practical for smaller institutions with limited resources and staffing. Furthermore, it may not address the “friend or foe” mentality held by many researchers towards HRECs and the ethics review process.
To mitigate some of these challenges, we recommend the following practices:
Discipline diplomats: membership and expertise
The National Statement mandates the composition of HRECs, including the requirement that at least two people with current research experience relevant to the application under review are included in assessment processes. In order to ensure that the committee can best serve its research community, it is important that this membership is representative of the institution’s researchers, and its research agendas and priorities.
When a growth area is identified, HRECs must make a concerted effort to recruit the necessary expertise to address it. For example, when our own institution introduced a creative arts doctorate that encouraged candidates to work in innovative practice-led research methodologies, the committee’s lack of familiarity with these research approaches presented a stumbling block in the conduct of reviews. To address this, we actively recruited an academic with expertise in arts- and practice-led research and understanding of the vagaries of creative arts higher degree research. Taking this action not only served the needs of the committee, but also researchers working in this field. In addition to providing and important point of ‘translation’ across these research approaches, the ‘discipline diplomat’ was also positioned to be able to mediate details of the ethics review process back to the discipline’s researchers.
This diplomatic approach to ethics review facilitates a more friendly (and therefore productive) relationship between the committee and researchers. Furthermore, its pedagogical emphasis – that is, always working to facilitate learning and understanding for both the committee and the researcher – helps to build the capacity of the committee which leads to a more confident assessment of applications and the enactment of disciplinarily relevant reviews.
Playing an active role in fostering the research community
HRECs are an important part of the research bureaucracy in universities but seeing ethics review as solely a bureaucratic or compliance-driven process is bad for research – and for the souls of the HREC members!
To counter the perception that HRECs are driven by bureaucratic process solely, HRECs need to instead demonstrate that they are indeed more than ‘process’; that they understand the dynamics of research practice and the affective dimensions of the review process. This does not mean passing all applications without question to win researchers over. Rather, HRECs need to position themselves within the research community, not just within the research bureaucracy.
This can be achieved in several ways. First, through outreach to researchers and the delivery of engaging workshops and presentations that illuminate ethics processes and provide bespoke support to disciplinary researchers. This should include the provision of workshops for higher degree and early career researchers and offering casual drop-in sessions; both initiatives able to be conducted in-person or online, and vital for providing researchers an opportunity to ask questions in a supportive and collegial forum. Beyond sessions that focus on the practical dimensions of completing the ethical review process, the HRECs should participate in or facilitate other events in the research calendar that encourage researchers to see and understand ethics as intrinsic to their research identity and practice, and not just a form to fill.
Next, ensuring that feel engaged in a meaningful dialogue when they are undergoing the ethics review process. This can be achieved by guiding them in the initial application, and meeting to discuss and advise on the outcomes of a review, particularly when the review comments are extensive or complicated. In this way, the ethics review process itself becomes collaborative and generative, and is particularly helpful for student and early-career researchers. (This is also where the discipline diplomats can play an important role).
Such approaches enable researchers and committees to engage with each other as peers within a research community rather than as foes in a bureaucratic process.
The ethical mindset of the HREC itself
Just as the previous section worked to dislodge the idea that the HRECs and ethics review are solely about bureaucracy and process, it is important to foster a culture within the HREC itself that challenges this view.
The composition of a HREC necessarily involves some pragmatism. Members may often join committees to fulfil a particular service obligation or requirement, and committees may seek members to fulfil particular roles that are needed. Nevertheless, individual members and the HREC as a whole need to keep their purpose in mind: to facilitate the ethical conduct of research at that institution. Importantly, with the exception of egregiously unethical research designs and premises, the purpose of the HREC isn’t necessarily to stop research from happening but to make sure it happens in the most ethical way possible. Feedback from the committee to the researcher should always be filtered through the question of: what does the researcher need to know or do to make this possible?
HRECs as the critical friend
A distant and regulatory HREC might be bureaucratically expedient, but it does little to help cultivate a strong research community. By being the critical friend that ensures that researchers in all disciplines feel both represented and heard in the ethics review process, HRECs can help to address matters of research integrity wholistically and as intrinsic to the research process and identity.
This post may be cited as:
Carniel, J. (2 February 2023) Friend or foe? Building better relationships between HRECs and researchers Research Ethics Monthly: https://ahrecs.com/friend-or-foe-building-better-relationships-between-hrecs-and-researchers/