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Ethics and the privacy pendulum3


As the development of new technologies advances at a rapid pace, the ability to access, search and link information in new and different ways also continues to grow. Current legislative and governance frameworks regarding data privacy were developed at a time when these possibilities were not foreseen and are now an inadequate fit for this brave new world. Research ethics guidelines in particular struggle to accommodate not only the new mediums of communication, such as social media, but the ways in which this type of data can be harvested (often unknowingly) and connected to formerly disparate pieces of benign or de-identified data to create incredibly detailed pictures of peoples’ lives, views and aspirations. Ethics committees also grapple with assessing the risks and benefits of research at a time when the privacy pendulum has swung from what was a common central belief within the community (and indeed a human right) of the importance of protecting privacy at all costs to a more stratified set of values that include younger generations who actively seek out public connectedness and openly share almost all aspects of their lives in the public domain. How are the views of these generations and their sense of what constitutes risk and benefit captured in the deliberations of ethics committees whose membership often (although not exclusively) is made of Gen X-ers or baby boomers?

One of the real strengths of ethics committees is the diversity of experience and opinions they bring to bear on debating and resolving the ethical challenges of research that is driving new frontiers of technology and its exploration of all that it means to be human. Ensuring multi-generational membership of ethics committees that capture these stratified values can only add to this strength. However there is also a need for researchers and committees to stay engaged with public debate to understand evolving community values regarding privacy and our information. Why? Because one thing is for certain – a pendulum never stays at the peak of its swing for long and it already appears to be on the move again. This time the driving force is not a generational change but the rapid rise of big data and the associated realisation of the tangible market value of our information. Knowledge is power, and data, and the ability to harness and explore it in all its forms, is now big business. As individuals and enterprises join the new race to protect the IP associated with their data and mitigate against the risks that can arise from its misuse, they are also demanding their fair share of the benefits that can flow from its potential exploitation. Principles of privacy, justice and consent in this new context will require new considerations by researchers and ethics committees alike.

This blog may be cited as:
Pitkin, C (2015, 6 October) Ethics and the privacy pendulum. AHRECS Blog. Retrieved from

Cathy Pitkin
Manager Social Responsibility and Ethics CSIRO

Cathy Pitkin is responsible for the management of human and animal CathyPitkinresearch ethics for CSIRO. In this role she has led the development and implementation of a human research ethics framework for the organisation and manages the ethics review and associated support process for research scientists undertaking a diverse range of social, biophysical and interdisciplinary research. She has over 10 years experience working with researchers and research managers across multiple disciplines in considering the ethical dimensions of their research and ensuring that ethics principles are embedded as a core part of research design and implementation. This experience includes research that involves emergent technologies, privacy and other related social considerations. Cathy has an in-depth knowledge of current national ethics guidelines and related legislation and broader frameworks for research ethics governance. She regularly provides training to researchers and ethics committee members and has developed a suite of resources to support good research practice.

Prior to this role she was Director of Communication, Education and Training with CSIRO’s Social and Economic Integration Emerging Science Initiative which focussed on building capacity for and greater consideration of social and economic issues in biophysical research.

Before joining CSIRO Cathy worked in a range of community development, training, project management and communications roles in the private, government and NGO sectors. She has a Masters degree in community and international development and undergraduate degrees in social science and business.

Is the pre-recruitment of research participants potentially an ethical issue in Australia? (David Hunter)1

Posted by Admin in Human Research Ethics on June 11, 2015 / Keywords: , , , ,

I’ve recently published a paper focused on the UK looking at some ethical issues faced by a practice that has developed for the recruitment of research participants there, called pre-recruitment. Given the difficulties recruiting research participants, companies have formed who source research participants for researchers, particularly for pharmaceutical research. They do this primarily by recruiting potential participants onto lists and then selling access to these lists to researchers.

This is hardly a new practice, informally researchers often keep lists and contact details for previous participants so they can recruit them onto future studies which is a form of pre-recruitment in itself. However having become a commercial business worrying trends have emerged in the UK regarding the information provided to the pre-recruited, where they may be promised that they will earn thousands of pounds, help cure cancer and be heroes if they just agree to volunteer.

What is problematic about this is that no research ethics committee in the UK and I suspect none here either would approve a project which made such statements in its recruitment literature. However because this is pre-recruitment it is entirely unregulated. And worse still the research ethics committee reviewing the actual study that draws on this pool of pre-recruited participants will probably not know they have been pre-recruited, nor what information they were given prior to their recruitment to a specific study. This is problematic both because it makes a mockery of the careful provisions we have established regarding informed consent to ensure it is valid (avoiding explicit incentives, emotive language and over promising results) but also because it presents the participants with conflicting information, which turns the consent process into a game they play to get to the results (a fortune, cure for cancer etc) rather than a careful reflection on whether they want to participate.

Like in the UK, presently in Australia the pre-recruitment of research participants is entirely unregulated – specifically the National Statement wouldn’t apply to pre-recruitment since it is not directly the recruitment of research participants though we might think best practice in pre-recruitment would follow the norms established by the National Statement and enforced by Human Research Ethics Committees (HRECs) for the direct recruitment of research participants in Australia.

So how should HRECs respond to pre-recruitment? Pre-recruitment is difficult to regulate both because it is prevalent and because unlike research itself it does not have a public output at the end of it. I’d suggest that the best way forward is for a section on pre-recruitment be added to the National Ethics Form. This should ask if any research participants have been pre-recruited, and if they have copies of the recruitment literature and materials should be provided to the HREC reviewing the research. If the HREC considers that material to be misleading or inadequate it can then turn down the study, or at least require a different recruitment method. This is likely to quickly change the practices of pre-recruitment companies since if researchers can’t get ethical approval if they use pre-recruiters their business model will swiftly fail.

Dr David Hunter
Associate Professor of Medical Ethics
Southgate Institute,
School of Medicine,
Flinders University

This blog may be cited as:
Hunter, D (2015, 11 June) Is the pre-recruitment of research participants potentially an ethical issue in Australia? AHRECS Blog. Retrieved from