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Should we Reframe Research Ethics as a Professional Ethics?

 


Dr Nathan Emmerich
Research Fellow in Bioethics at ANUMS

Despite the fact that one of the urtexts of bioethics—Beauchamp and Childress’ principles of biomedical ethics—offers a set of concepts that purport to apply to both research and medical practice it is nevertheless the case that we standardly contrast research ethics with professional ethics. The operating presumption seems to be that a proper grasp of professional ethics requires an understanding of the unique role professional’s play, whereas the same cannot be said of research ethics. Here the presumption is that researchers are not unique but interchangeable. Furthermore, their individuality is inimical to good, and therefore ethical, research.

Whilst both healthcare professionals and researchers should be objective, the professional enters into a singular relationship with their patients. The position of the researcher can, however, be occupied by any relevantly qualified individual and their function is to report their scientific observations. Thus, underlying this contrast is an epistemological point. The perceived importance of the relationship between doctors and patients means that whilst the ethics of the preeminent profession, medicine, are predicated on professionalism they are equally predicated on something that is distinctively (inter)personal. In contrast, the notion that there might be an (inter)personal dimension to the relationship between researchers and research participants is inimical to the requirement for objectivity, at least for a certain value of objectivity.

COMMENTARY
Nik Zeps, AHRECS

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In this thought-provoking blog, Nathan Emmerich challenges the notion that there is any distinction between research ethics and professional ethics when it comes to social science research. That is, the very nature of the enterprise requires that the researcher be deeply engaged in ethical discourse throughout the conduct of the study and not simply at a point in time to satisfy the regulatory requirements of ethics committees to obtain their approval. Whilst the argument is reserved for the social sciences, and there is some hesitancy to extend it beyond this, it is clear that the arguments made are true for all research, including biomedical. There is a reluctance to challenge notions about the divide between research and clinical practice that have been with us for over 50 years, but perhaps it is time to have a proper discussion about whether this is or is not applicable any longer. Patient centered research with an emphasis on co-design with consumers upends the notion that this type of research maintains a separation between researchers and research participants. Social science research provides an immediate opportunity for rethinking how we behave ethically, but biomedical research should follow hot on the heels.

Therein, of course, lies the rub. According to Stark, the differentiation between research ethics and professional ethics can be traced to the National Institute of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA, circa 1950. Given the existing competition between the codes of professional ethics promulgated by medicine’s sub-specialties, the nascent idea of a research ethics was conceived pragmatically and in aprofessional terms. When it came to biomedical research, and the epistemology of the natural sciences, this was not an issue. However, consistent with Schrag’s critique of the subsequent development of research ethics as neglecting concerns expressed by social scientists, this is more problematic when it comes to the social sciences, particularly at the more interpretive end of the spectrum.
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In qualitative social science the unique perspective, position or standpoint of the researcher is essential to understanding socio-cultural reality and, therefore, to the process of conducting research. Furthermore, it is not something that can be eliminated by the use of (replicable) quantitative measures. This does not mean qualitative research cannot be objective. Rather, it means that the notion of objectivity differs between the natural and social sciences. Doing qualitative social science does not mean embracing subjectivity. Rather, it requires qualitative researchers to embrace epistemological reflexivity and to aim at objectivity as a value, virtue, or standpoint of social research.
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When this is coupled with the fact that such research often seeks to give expression to the ‘lived experience’ of research participants, one can see how a concern for the (inter)personal must return to center stage in discussions of social scientific research ethics. One way of doing so would be to rethink the ethics of social scientific research as a form of professional ethics. Thus, rather than simply ‘frontloading’ ethical decision-making as a part of the design of proposed research, which can then be subject to peer review or evaluation by committee, we can more clearly acknowledge that engaging with the ethical dimension of research requires ongoing attention. The range of ethical issues researchers might encounter, both in the field and as a function of their role, are such that we cannot hope to fully address them preemptively. In this context, and consistent with the contemporary concern for the integrity of both research and researchers, we might draw on the idea of researchers as professionals and, in so doing, embrace the view that they ought to be guided by a set of internal professional norms or ethics.
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Of course, this is not exactly a solution to the ethical issues social scientists might encounter in the course of research. It does, however, invite further engagement with such questions. Indeed, one can say more than this. Rather than thinking of the ethics of research as something to be addressed and codified by external commentators, such as bioethicists, the idea that research might benefit from a professional ethics invites researchers themselves to lead the discussion. No doubt questions remain, not least on what might constitute a profession or professional group in this context. Nevertheless, this proposal suggests that both professional groups and professional researchers should play a privileged role in creating, interpreting and putting into practice the substantive commitments of their own professional ethics. Furthermore, it is for them to set forth, justify and communicate the stance they adopt to other stakeholders.
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This suggestion stands in relatively stark contrast to conceptions of research ethics, where external standards and evaluations are seen as having priority. To me, the difference is akin to the one we find when comparing research ethics committees and clinical ethics committees. The former tends to be rather one-sided; it assesses and offers judgment on research proposals or documents. The latter engages with professional actors and, through a process of mutual dialogue and discussion, facilitates and contributes to the individual’s own ethical formations. Which approach is more likely to promote the ethics and integrity of research, particularly social scientific research, seems self-evident.
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Dr Nathan Emmerich is a Research Fellow in Bioethics at ANUMS. The ideas presented in this post stem from a book chapter entitled ‘A Professional Ethics for Researchers?’ (online first) recently published in Iphofen (Ed) Handbook of Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity (Springer) as well as an earlier publication ‘Reframing Research Ethics.

References:

Beauchamp, T.L., and J.F. Childress. 2009 [1979]. Principles of Biomedical Ethics. 6th Edition. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Emmerich, N. 2016 ‘Reframing Research Ethics: Towards a Professional Ethics for the Social Sciences’. Sociological Research Online 21(4):7 http://www.socresonline.org.uk/21/4/7.html

Emmerich, N. 2019. ‘A Professional Ethics for Researchers?’ In Iphofen, R. (Ed) Handbook of Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity. Springer. Online First: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-76040-7_34-1

Iphofen, R. (Ed) Forthcoming 2020. Handbook of Research Ethics and Scientific Integrity. Springer, https://link.springer.com/referencework/10.1007/978-3-319-76040-7

Stark, L. 2011. Behind Closed Doors: IRBs and the Making of Ethical Research. University of Chicago Press. https://www.press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/B/bo12182576.html

Schrag, Z.M. 2010. Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965–2009. The Johns Hopkins University Press. https://jhupbooks.press.jhu.edu/title/ethical-imperialism

This post may be cited as:
Emmerich, N. (1 October 2019) Should we Reframe Research Ethics as a Professional Ethics? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/should-we-reframe-research-ethics-as-a-professional-ethics



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