Mark Israel, Julia Miller, Liwen Tan and Kristy Davis
University human research ethics application procedures can be complicated and daunting for the uninitiated. The process can be especially problematic for international postgraduate students. As part of their Master’s by coursework theses, Kristy Davis and Liwen Tan conducted focus groups and interviews with four research higher degree and 21 Master’s coursework international students from eight different countries, studying at an Australian university, to gain their views on the human research ethics application process. Interviews and focus groups were conducted in English, except those for the nine Chinese Master’s students, who elected to have sessions run by Liwen Tan in Mandarin.
Our analysis of that data (Davis et al., 2021) showed that the most important influences on international students’ experience were the time it took to do an application; support from supervisors, peers and others; their own language skills; and their lack of familiarity with research ethics procedures.
The possibility that international postgraduate students will have engaged with concepts of ethical research in their previous studies will vary between countries, institutions and disciplines. Students from countries with a less developed research ethics tradition may therefore face challenges when undertaking coursework that assumes a background of ethical practice in research.
Some of the language used by ethics bureaucracies is so arcane that it taxes even those who specialise in research ethics. Those of us who have spent time on human research ethics committees (HRECs) know that many researchers struggle with technical phrases (often developed in the biomedical research field) such as ‘benefit sharing’, ‘incidental findings’, ‘disclosure policy’, ‘burden of risk’, ‘publicly-available data’, ‘pseudonymised data‘ and ‘distress protocols’. This can be particularly challenging for students for whom English is an additional language, including those whose first language may not have a vocabulary that matches the terms used in research ethics forms and associated correspondence.
Such challenges can compromise students’ ability to build their knowledge, skills and commitment to engaging in ethical research, as well as their capability to fulfil the requirements of a research ethics review. Moreover, delay in gaining HREC approval can have a ruinous impact on international postgraduate students under pressure to complete because of restrictions on their visa or scholarship.
As a result, some international students may be warned by their fellow students not to undertake research that requires ethics review. This threatens the ability of international students to achieve graduate learning outcomes, distorts the research agenda pursued at graduate level and ill-equips future generations of researchers in some disciplines to undertake empirical research of value to their home countries.
Given the lack of familiarity that students may have with research culture in general and ethics applications in particular, supervisors play a key role in helping students become confident researchers and navigate the demands of a thesis. However, it is difficult to trace what support supervisors actually offer their students in the ethics process, whether this meets international students’ expectations, and whether these expectations are legitimate.
To improve the experience of international students undertaking research involving human research ethics applications, we recommend universities in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand should:
- provide international students with a clear and concise guide to research ethics review processes at their institution.
- develop clear explanations of terminology and concepts associated with ethical research practice. These should be translated into a range of languages used by international students at their institutions to assist with the comprehension of fundamental concepts across different linguistic and cultural backgrounds and be linked to appropriate resources already available in those languages.
- resource reflective and ethical practice in research (in Australia, in accordance with the National Statement). Students and staff should be informed of, and encouraged to access, the resources and support provided.
- generate resources to help researchers understand how to conduct research ethically in line with the regulatory expectations of the country where they are enrolled as students, where they are undertaking fieldwork, and where they might intend working on graduation.
- develop curricula that enable students undertaking human research to further both their knowledge and the skills required to engage in ethical research and guide applications through research ethics review. This capacity building should occur throughout a student’s degree and should be reflected in course learning outcomes.
Davis, K, Tan, L, Miller, J & Israel, M (2021) Seeking Approval: international higher education students’ experiences of applying for human research ethics clearance in Australia. Journal of Academic Ethics. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10805-021-09425-1
This article draws on our work (Davis et al., 2021) published in the Journal of Academic Ethics and freely available via the following SharedIt link https://rdcu.be/cmom7
This post may be cited as:
Israel, M., Miller, J., Tan, L. and Davis, K. (21 June) Research ethics reviews: responding to the challenges faced by international postgraduate students Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-ethics-reviews-responding-to-the-challenges-faced-by-international-postgraduate-students/