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

 


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



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