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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Worried your researchers might not be treating human research ethics as a core component of good research practice? Concerned they are not seeing it as their responsibility?

 


All of us might be part of the problem.

Dr Gary Allen
AHRECS Senior Consultant

Consider a hypothetical problem:

You find a partially submerged car bobbing in the local harbour. 

A big problem

So, you rush out to hire a crane and pay an operator to lift it out of there.

 

It’s working perfectly.  Soon the pesky vehicle will be out of everyone’s way and normal life can resume.

Except…

 

Except you hadn’t allowed for the weight of the car and water, and you hadn’t factored in the leverage effect of the degree to which the car was below the crane.

WOOSH, ARGH! SPLASH

So now you have both a crane and car blocking the harbour.

And by the way you might now also have a crane operator who is badly injured.

 

This latest development really isn’t a problem because you rush out to get an even bigger crane to lift out the first crane with the attached pesky car.

All is going well.

Until it isn’t.

 

Most of these images record a costly sequence of blunders in Galway, Ireland (which apparently was initiated by a parking accident).

At the risk of undermining my metaphor, the last image is a photoshop fake.

For human research ethics, the big problem is that researchers might not be seeing human research ethics as a vital component of doing research well, and researchers might not perceive ethics as their responsibility.  A related problem is ensuring the ethical design and conduct of research might not be perceived as also institutional responsibility.

The usual response has been to

  1. grab research ethics review as a governance weapon to be wielded with ardent fervour.
  2. slam submitted applications we perceive as being incomplete or ill-advised,
  3. respond with scores of directive conditions. And
  4. use enforcement and sanctions procedures to punish the researchers who dare to resist.

But in attempting to solve this problem, have we created a worse one?

Reflections on the limitations of our current approach

  • The international approach was created as a response to some egregious biomedical and psychology scandals. Safeguarding against such incidents has driven our implementation and the continue evolution of the arrangements.
  • The approach is wedded to a compliance and enforcement way of seeing any problem.
  • The approach tends to treat the 99+% harshly because of the misbehaviour of <1%.
  • It also assumes it is possible and helpful to try to direct the complex behaviour of professionals across a vast array of (sub)disciplines, methods, topics, populations and contexts.

Reflecting back on the time, effort and the resources we have expended over the last 60 years, we find ourselves confronted with an uncomfortable question: Does this approach catch the dangerous minority? I would suggest it does not.

Symptoms of the problem

  • Institutions that almost exclusively focus their human research ethics efforts on ethics review.
  • The institution’s executive is anxious about institutional risk exposure.
  • There is a crippling workload for reviewers and administrators.
  • It is not uncommon to hear researchers ask each other, “Have you done ethics yet?”
  • Too many researchers outsource their ethical responsibility to the research ethics committee.
  • There is evidence of unthinking or grudging compliance, avoidance and misrepresentation.
  • Ethics training at the institution has been reduced to better form filling.

The National Statement (2007 updated 2018)

  • The National Statement is not the problem, though it has its limitations.
  • Are we trapped by past practice? “This is the way it has always been done.”
  • Both the National Statement and the Australian Code stress institutional responsibility for research culture and research training.
  • We recognise the challenges and flexibility that are open to us by the framing of the national arrangements (by way of example, the Australian National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007 updated 2018) allows for great diversity in the selection of a consent strategy, even though there are committees that treat an information sheet and consent form as the preferred consent strategy).
  • Having excellent policies, processes and forms aren’t enough for us to claim we are promoting a culture of ethical and appropriate conduct.
  • Could we actually be encouraging researchers not to be reflective? Could we actually be making things worse?

 

 But there is a better way: resourcing reflective practice

  • Stressing personal, rather than outsourced, ethical responsibility.
  • Encouraging ethical thinking before commencing an ethics application.
  • Seeing an approval certificate as a step, not the end of thinking about human research ethics.
  • Continued reflection on: merit and integrity matters (such as non-financial conflicts of interest); beneficence (such as public goods and community harms); respect for persons (such as a communal approach to consent); and justice (such as ensuring an otherwise disenfranchised voice is not lost).
  • Developing skills to monitor ethical conduct throughout the lifecycle of a project.
  • Responsibilities continue through analysis, write up, reporting/publication, and management of data/material after a project is completed.
  • Regarding research ethics as a design, conduct, quality and professional responsibility – not ‘just’ a matter of compliance and bureaucratic concern.
  • Recognising a reciprocal obligation for those of us who participate in and/or administer research ethics reviews, to approach the review as facilitating research, not policing it.

Strategies to resource reflective practice

  • Shift institutional ethos – from relying solely on HREC review as a demonstration that the institution is serious about ethical conduct – to an ethical research culture.
  • Ethics review to advise and inform, rather than to clear/approve/police.
  • Ethics administrators empowered to work with both researchers and reviewers.
  • The institution having resource materials rather than rules.
  • Use of mentors and collegiate advisors, such as a network of Research Ethics Advisors.
  • An ongoing commitment to upskilling ethics reviewers.
  • Training, training, training – professional development focused upon principles, strategies to apply the principles to challenges, not just form filling.
  • Top down (institutional and discipline leaders) and bottom up (HDR and supervisor training, new staff and experienced staff).
  • Inviting two-way communication – welcoming innovation, praising thoughtful and elegant strategies, inviting feedback, and supporting creative problem solving.
  • Continuous improvement and striving towards a learning institutional approach, where complaints and negative feedback are opportunities to improve.

No cranes were harmed in the drafting of this post

See also

Israel, M, Allen, G & Thomson, C (2016) Australian Research Ethics Governance: Plotting the Demise of the Adversarial Culture. In van den Hoonaard, W & Hamilton, A (eds) The Ethics Rupture: Exploring Alternatives to Formal Research-Ethics Review. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. pp 285-316. http://www.utppublishing.com/The-Ethics-Rupture-Exploring-Alternatives-to-Formal-Research-Ethics-Review.html

Israel, M, Allen, G & Thomson, C (2016) Whiteboard: resourcing reflective practice.
https://ahrecs.com/previous-projects/whiteboard-resourcing-reflective-practice

This post may be cited as:

Allen, G. (19 June 2020) Worried your researchers might not be treating human research ethics as a core component of good research practice? Concerned they are not seeing it as their responsibility? Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/worried-your-researchers-might-not-be-treating-human-research-ethics-as-a-core-component-of-good-research-practice-concerned-they-are-not-seeing-it-as-their-responsibility



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