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Research Ethics Review as a Box-Ticking Exercise0

 

Associate Professor Angela Romano | Faculty Research Ethics Adviser, Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology

 

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.

REFERENCES

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

Update on the new subscribers’ area0

 

We are currently expecting the new service to go live prior to us sending the July 2019 edition of the Research Ethics Monthly.

It is being built by some talented designers and coders we are excited to be working with.

The service will be located at AHRECS.vip, will be far more easily browsed and used, with an annual subscription of $360 (Plus GST and a 2% charge if you pay by credit card).

We will have more about this new service in the next edition.  Email VIP@ahrecs.com if you have any questions.

“Reminder about service options and an easy way to pay AHRECS,” we say… aware of how corporate sleazy that sounds0

 

Dr Gary Allen, Senior Consultants AHRECS
Prof. Mark Israel
Prof. Colin Thomson AM
  
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Just in time for the end of the financial year (though we know many research institutions budget around calendar year), AHRECS has the capacity to receive payments by credit card. We thought this a good time to remind you of those of our services that lend themselves nicely to credit card payment.

In-meeting 30-minute professional development for HREC members ($900) – Workshops/briefings/guided discussion about your selected topic.  An easy way to tick the HREC member training box with minimum interruption to the work of a busy committee.  An experienced AHRECS team member will provide a PowerPoint with pre-recorded audio that could be played in a meeting (and retained for five years for viewing by absent and new members); the team member will ‘phone or Zoom into the meeting for Q&A/discussion. If so AHRECS can also record that component for your later use.

Access the new subscription area ($360) – Thank you to everyone who expressed interest and support for the new in-house subscribers’ area.  This is scheduled to go live in July/August.  By subscribing, you will get access to an impressive (and growing) set of HRE and RI resources that are Creative Commons so you can use them within your organisations as much as you want.

Bespoke webinar for your research community ($1500) – A one-hour webinar on a human research ethics or research integrity topic of your choice, tailored to your institution. The price allows for up to 200 attendees and provision of a recording for your later use.

3-hour orientation workshop for new RIAs ($2300) – Provide your new Research Integrity Advisers with a practical, topical and engaging orientation through this four-hour workshop.

Ten hours of on-call advice ($3400) – On-call advice can be used for both human research ethics and research integrity advice.  We can offer advice on everything from review feedback on a difficult application to commenting on a draft policy and providing advice on a tricky question with which the committee has been struggling.  In the research integrity space, we can suggest an appropriate investigation approach for an alleged breach, comment on a RI resource, or suggest references on a key topic.  The purchased time can be used in 15min, 30min, 1h, 4h and 8h blocks

Send an email to gary.allen@ahrecs.comif you have any questions.

The prices above exclude GST and a 2% credit card processing fee

A call for a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance1

 

Adrian Barnett, Queensland University of Technology

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Do we need a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance in health and medical research Australia? Many Australian researchers would cry “yes!” because they have repeatedly experienced application systems that are time-consuming and illogical.

I have never met a researcher who did not think that ethics and research integrity wasn’t vitally important, but many current application systems have more to do with risk aversion than the safety of patients or the public.

This risk aversion means that millions of dollars worth of Australian researchers’ time is being wasted on submitting the same forms to multiple ethical review committees. For example, getting approvals for our group’s low-risk survey of nurses in 50 hospitals cost an estimated $348,000 in staff time and delayed the study by six months (Barnett et al 2016).

Another Australian study of 60 nationwide hospitals spent an estimated $264,000 on approvals and the researchers’ experienced puzzling variations in submission requirements and decisions about the study’s level of risk (Clay-Williams et al 2018).

Another Australian study found that the time taken to complete the ethics and governance forms for a negligible risk study took eight times longer than the actual research (Rush et al 2018).

These are not isolated experiences and the current processes are driving researchers crazy. In our recent one-day meeting on improving research quality, we asked attendees to vote on the changes most needed to improve research and reduce research waste. The idea of a national inquiry into ethics and governance was voted fourth highest out of 21 policies (the full survey results are available here).

What should a national inquiry consider? The primary question should be: why can’t we have a national system? A national system that has standardised forms and is used by every state and territory health department. A national system that covers all types of research, not just clinical trials.

An inquiry into ethics processes could have been part of the Chubb inquiry (had Labor won the election) that promised a root-and-branch examination of Australia’s overall research framework and to “ensure that Australia maintains its international competitive advantage”. Other countries use simpler approval processes and we hamper our ability to conduct research by tying up researchers in wasteful knots of unnecessary paperwork.

A national inquiry should engage with the people doing the hard work of reviewing applications on ethics committees. These people should also welcome a streamlined system that cuts-out the requirement for them to review already reviewed applications, giving them more time to focus on important ethical considerations.

Researchers should also acknowledge that some delays and duplication are their own fault. A key problem is that ethics applications can be so badly written that committee members cannot judge the ethical implications of the study.

Australian researchers want a system that improves and facilities their research, not one that puts “virtually insurmountable and costly barriers in place” (Clay-Williams et al 2018). We want a “tailored and harmonised” system (Rush et al 2018).

Many researchers have been talking about the need for change for over a decade, but have seen only small improvements and plenty of backwards steps too. A national inquiry would cost time and money, but the potential long-term savings to researchers and the public from this important reform could be enormous.

Declaration of conflicts of interest: Adrian Barnett receives funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.

References

  • Rush, A., Ling, R., Carpenter, J. E., Carter, C., Searles, A., & Byrne, J. A. (2018). Research governance review of a negligible-risk research project: Too much of a good thing? Research Ethics, 14(3), 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/1747016117739937
  • Clay-Williams, R., Taylor, N. & Braithwaite, J. (2018) Potential solutions to improve the governance of multicentre health services research. Med J Aust; 208 (4): doi: 10.5694/mja16.01268
  • Barnett, A. G., Campbell, M. J., Campbell, Shield, C., Farrington, A., Hall, L., Page, K., Gardner, A., Mitchell, B.G. & Graves, N. (2016) The high costs of getting ethical and site-specific approvals for multi-centre research. Research Integrity and Peer Review 1:16 https://doi.org/10.1186/s41073-016-0023-6

This post may be cited as:
Barnett, A. G. (22  May 2019) A call for a national inquiry into the burden of research ethics and governance. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/a-call-for-a-national-inquiry-into-the-burden-of-research-ethics-and-governance

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