Many reacted to Karl Andersson’s autoethnography on cartoon child porn by asking how it could have been allowed to go ahead. But amid doubts about who it harmed and ongoing concerns about research bureaucracy, many are wary of a further ramping-up of ethics procedures. Jack Grove reports
This summer, a journal paper by a Swedish PhD student written in Germany about Japanese comics became an unusual problem for British academia. Karl Andersson, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Manchester, may have thought his colourful musings on three months spent masturbating to sexualised manga images of young boys pushed forward scholarship, but few agreed, either inside academia or outside it.
This unsettling and disturbing research project and the uproar it caused raises questions about human research ethics and research ethics review. It also raises serious questions about the responsibilities of institutions for research conducted under their auspices. Research that does not directly involve people as participants can still do significant harm. Work can have negative consequences without involving what current national frameworks around the world define as human research. This is a good time for an open debate about the need for ethical reflection for all research to reflect upon its impacts and negative consequences.
“Genuinely disgusting” was the verdict of Robert Halfon, chair of the House of Commons’ education committee, as he and other MPs grilled Manchester vice-president for social responsibility Nalin Thakkar in September, during a one-off evidence session on “free speech and research content in English universities” that was held in response to the Andersson case. The apologetic professor admitted that the affair had exposed a “blind spot” in Manchester’s vetting of controversial research.