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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Smarter proportional research ethics review

 


Rushing toward a faster review decision should not mean relaxing standards or playing chicken with stricter central control

Gary Allen, Mark Israel and Colin Thomson

Too often, there is a danger that ‘expedited ethical review’ (a term not used in the National Statement since 1999) might equate to an approach that abridges the review process to the point where it’s little more than a friendly exchange between peers or a nod to seniority. We won’t call out the well-reported cases where it is hard to fathom how they were granted ethics approval. Such cases should make us uncomfortable, because they are invitations to replace institutional self-regulation with something hasher and unsympathetic.

Don’t get us wrong, we’ve spoken often and enthusiastically about the value of well-designed proportional review arrangements. We have assisted many clients, large and small, to design and implement such arrangements and believe that they form part of a well-conceived review system.

A proportional review arrangement can deliver a review outcome much faster than consideration by a human research ethics committee, but instead of a ‘Claytons’ or mock-review, it should have the following features:

  1. While there can, and should, be a mechanism to do an automated quick self-assessment of whether a proposed project qualifies for ethics review other than by a research ethics committee, the process should:
    1. not rely on questions along the lines of “Is this a low risk research project?”
    2. draw on, reference and link to guidance material.
    3. when using trigger questions, ensure they are nuanced, with probing sub-questions.
    4. include confirmation of a quick assessment by an experienced ethics officer or chairperson.
    5. retain an applicant’s responses, both as a record of what they said about the project, and for future evaluation of whether the arrangement is correctly assessing new projects and guiding applications along the correct review pathway.
  2. The process should preferably be online, easily (re)configurable, easily auditable, with information entered by applicants and ‘triaged’ by an ethics officer.
  3. A quality online system will populate committee papers and reports, will issue reminders and will populate with known information.
  4. While many projects may be reviewed outside of the human research ethics committee, the reviews should be conducted by experienced persons, who participate in annual professional development and who can draw upon internal and external policy and resource material.

In Australia, an institution’s proportional review arrangements might include the following pathways:

  1. Prior review– Research that has already been reviewed by another HREC, appropriately delegated review body, or an international body equivalent to an Australian research ethics review body.
  2. Scope checker– A test to confirm whether a proposed project is in fact human research.
  3. Exemption test– A test to determine whether the proposed research is a type an institution could exempt from ethics review as per the National Statement.
  4. HREC review required test– A test to confirm whether the research project is of a type the National Statement specifies must be reviewed by a HREC.
  5. Institutional exemption test– Many institutionsexempt some categories of human research from research ethics review (e.g. universities often exempt course evaluations and practical activities for a teaching-learning purpose).
  6. Negligible risk research– Subject to qualifying criteria an institution might establish a negligible risk review pathway in which applications are considered administratively.
  7. Low-risk, and minimal ethical issue research– Subject to qualifying criteria, proposed projects that are low risk and have minimal ethical sensitivity could be reviewed by the chair of the research ethics committee.
  8. Low-risk, some ethical issue research– Again subject to qualifying criteria, proposed projects that are low risk but have some ethical sensitivity could be reviewed by a small panel of the research ethics committee (including external member of the committee).
  9. HREC review – Only human research (see 2), that has not previously been reviewed (see 1) that is not exempt (see 3 and 4) and has not been classified as negligible risk (see 6) or low risk (see 7 and 8) needs to be reviewed by HREC.

An arrangement with the features listed above would allow for review that is proportional, timely, efficient and justifiable. Reviews that are merely expedited or fast places us all at risk. The increasing examples of “how could that have been approved?” makes it feel as though some institutions are gambling that a desire to meet researchers’ calls for quick, if superficial, review won’t be exposed by unethical practice. Perhaps they are correct, but every new reported review misstep makes us more nervous. Realistically, establishing a nationally administered reliable, robust and agile proportional review process requires substantial investment of time and other resources so is unlikely to happen.  But, what poor review processes could do is invite far more detailed direction on how institutions can design, conduct and monitor processes outside of a HREC. In our experience, there are greater and longer-lasting benefits that can accrue from an institution having a high quality approach to proportional review.

The above is a summary of the discussion we typically include in blueprint documents about establishing a robust proportional review arrangement. We have included some further notes on this topic on our https://www.ahrecs.vip and Patreon pages.

Please contact us at proportional@ahrecs.com if you would like to discuss how we might assist your institution.

This post may be cited as:
Allen, G., Israel, M. & Thomson, C. (26 August 2019) Smarter proportional research ethics review.  Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/smarter-proportional-research-ethics-review



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