My role as a university Research Ethics Advisor involves an interesting range of activities, although sadly there is less actual advising than I would like. As Faculty Research Ethics Advisor (FREA) for the Queensland University of Technology’s Creative Industries Faculty, I review ethics applications for a wide variety of projects, ranging from negligible risk to high risk; manage a team of six Research Ethics Advisors, who review applications for projects with negligible to low risk; conduct training workshops and drop-in sessions for researchers to seeking advice research ethics; and answer queries about multitudinous ethics-related issues.
In practice, however, most of my work relates to checking ethics applications that are submitted in order to ensure that they are ready for review, then overseeing the review process and completing the associated paperwork. Since I commenced the FREA’s role almost a year ago, I have tried to increase the number and depth of conversations with colleagues and research students about broader issues of ethics, rather than simply how to complete an application. I see the culture changing, but most discussion continues to be initiated by an onus to complete ethics applications and focuses on application requirements.
A long-held critique voiced by Western scholars about the review of human research ethics is that the process is excessively focussed on box ticking and bureaucratic compliance rather than meaningful deliberation about ethical issues (Floyd & Arthur, 2012; Johnsson et al., 2014; Schrag, 2011). Sociology and law professor Gresham Sykes forecast this problem more than 50 years ago when he noted: ‘There is the danger that an institutional review committee might become a mere rubber stamp, giving the appearance of a solution, rather than the substance, for a serious problem of growing complexity which requires continuing discussion’ (Sykes, 1967, p. 11).
Many contemporary research articles about human research ethics boards and review processes decry this so-called box ticking or rubber stamp mentality, but usually these articles discuss review boards or processes without considering the mindset of researchers themselves. As a FREA at a major Australian university, I see substantive numbers of researchers who would actually welcome a more rudimentary ‘tick and flick’ process, with short, simple forms that would promptly grant them a rubber stamp of institutional endorsement.
I have witnessed this attitude in many research teams in which research assistants, project managers or research students are given primary or sole responsibility for research ethics and the writing of ethics applications, with little to no input or oversight from team supervisors or leaders. Such conduct would not be tolerated in any other area of research activity. Those same research team leaders would never request their research assistant to write an application for a major research grant, ask their project manager to draft an article for a respected journal, or instruct one of their master’s or doctoral students to submit a report for Confirmation of Candidature or other major study milestone without a senior team member providing major input and checking the text prior to submission. Ethics applications are not directly attached to any KPIs, so these researchers simply do not see the writing of an ethics application as warranting the same level of attention.
At an institutional level, there is substantial variation among research leaders and administrators in their grasp of the principles of research ethics and their fondness for a box ticking approach. In my discussions with staff from different universities, I have heard numerous research leaders argue research ethics advisors and reviewers should ‘stick to ethics and stop providing feedback about methods’. The head of one research centre leader told me in all seriousness that ethics committees should not request amendments in an ethics application if their review processes reveal that ‘the project sucks’ as long as there were no ‘ethical problems’ such as risk of harm to participants.
One academic who held one of the most senior research leadership positions in his university was surprised when I explained to him that researchers could not simply state what methodology they were using , such as focus groups, then be given a checklist of the ethical risks that applied to that particular methodology. He told me that he had not realised the ethics committees needed to know details about the exact methods being used, nor had he previously considered that the risks relating to each element of the project might change according to numerous contextual factors, such as the topic being studied, the location of research, the nature of recruitment, and the age, education levels, employment and cultures of participants.
Such comments indicate a perspective about research ethics that is fundamentally at odds with the approach that is outlined in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research(2018), which sets standards for human research in Australia. The National Statement is based on the premise that research ethics and methods are inextricably linked. Itdefines ‘merit and integrity’ as essential components of ethical research (Section 1). For a research project to have merit and integrity, it must be designed ‘using methods appropriate for achieving the aims of the proposal’; be conducted by researchers with ‘experience, qualifications and competence that are appropriate for the research’; and be supported by ‘facilities and resources appropriate for the research’ (Section 1.1). Section 3.1 outlines ethical issues in seven overlapping phases that occur in most human research, these being ‘Recruitment’, ‘Consent’, ‘Collection, Use and Management of Data and Information’, ‘Communication of Research Findings or Results to Participants’, ‘Dissemination of Research Outputs and Outcomes’ and ‘After the Project’.
It is hard to see how any research leader who is familiar with the National Statementcould define human research that ‘sucks’ or has manifest methodological problems as ‘ethical’, yet I have encountered this mindset surprisingly often. From my observation, scholars who believe that there is only a limited connection between research methods and ethics will also often express simplified notions about ethics assurance and demonstrate a fondness for ticking boxes and using cut-and-paste responses.
A number of scholars have argued that rather than rely on box ticking and a culture of enforcement through form filling, research institutions should build reflective practice about research integrity by developing resources and supporting professional development (Allen & Israel, 2018; Israel & Drenth, 2016). I agree with that perspective, but believe those researchers who favour a box ticking approach will have no impetus to change until their employers and funding institutions demonstrate that they value and reward a reflective approach to ethics in the same way that they show they value and reward successful grant applications, research publications or research student completions.
Allen, G., & Israel, M. (2018). Moving Beyond Regulatory Compliance: Building Institutional Support for Ethical Reflection in Research. In R. Iphofen & M. Tolich (eds). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics (pp. 276-289). London: Sage.
Floyd, A., & Arthur, L. (2012). Researching from within: External and internal ethical engagement. International Journal of Research & Method in Education, 35(2), 171-180. doi: 10.1080/1743727X.2012.670481
Israel, M., & Drenth, P. (2016). Research Integrity: Perspectives from Australia and Netherlands. Handbook of Academic Integrity, 789-808.
Johnsson, L., Eriksson, S., Helgesson, G., & Hansson, M. G. (2014). Making researchers moral: Why trustworthiness requires more than ethics guidelines and review. Research Ethics, 10(1), 29-46. doi: 10.1177/1747016113504778
National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research 2007 (Updated 2018). The National Health and Medical Research Council, the Australian Research Council and Universities Australia. Commonwealth of Australia, Canberra.
Schrag, Z. (2011). The case against ethics review in the social sciences. Research Ethics, 7, 120-131. doi: 10.1177/174701611100700402
Sykes, G.M. (1967). Feeling our way: A report on a conference on ethical issues in the social sciences. American Behavioral Scientist, 10(10), 8-11.
This post may be cited as:
Romano, A. (22 June 2019) Research Ethics Review as a Box-Ticking Exercise Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/research-ethics-review-as-a-box-ticking-exercise