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Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research – Anna Denejkina0

 

This blog will provide a discussion of issues present in deidentifying marginalised research participants, or research participants who request to be identified, in the publication of qualitative research. As my research is mixed-method (quantitative and multi-method qualitative) it included several data collection techniques and analyses. For this discussion, I will specifically focus on the face-to-face and Skype interviews I conducted with participants in Russia and the United States.

My PhD study investigates intergenerational transmission of combat-related trauma from parent to child, focusing on the Soviet–Afghan war, 1979–89. This research includes interviews with Soviet veterans and family members of veterans; it was these interviews that raised questions of participant erasure and agency. From 12 face-to-face and Skype interview participants, one participant requested complete deidentification; one requested that their real name not be used but their location and other identifying details remain; two participants requested that only their first names be used and their location and other identifying details remain; the eight remaining participants requested that they be fully identified, with some participants sending me photographs of them and their families for inclusion in research publications. Given the social and political sensitivity that persists in Eastern Europe around the discussion of the Soviet invasion into Afghanistan, I had to consider and discuss with participants that requested they be identified the issue of their safety.

My research participants are marginalized participants by virtue of the topic of my research, the Soviet–Afghan war, and the ongoing silencing treatment they’ve received during and following the war by the state:

To take just two examples: in the hope of obscuring the true impact of the war, some local authorities refused to allow special areas in cemeteries to be set apart for the graves of soldiers killed in Afghanistan; while others forbade the cause and place of death to be stated on gravestones or memorial shields. (Aleksievich, Whitby & Whitby 1992, p.5–6)

Given academic broad-stroke standards of deidentifying research participants, we must review the ethics of this practice as it can promote and perpetuate erasure of marginalised participants and the silencing of their voices. Some textbooks on the topic of ethics in the social sciences approach anonymity and deidentification of participants from the angle that anonymity is part of the basic expectations of a research participant, without elaborating that anonymity is not always desirable nor ethical (see for example Ransome 2013), essentially replicating the medical model of human research ethics developed for the regulation of biomedical research in the United States (Dingwall 2016, p.25). Such an approach does not address the issues of presenting anonymity as a status-quo in social research, and makes a sweeping – and a Western academic – generalisation that anonymity is one of the vital assurances researchers must give to their participants to keep within their duty of care (that is, that researchers have at least some obligation to care for their research participants).

This approach to research ethics negates participant agency, particularly those participants that request they be identified in research. Furthermore, forced anonymity can be an act of disrespecting participants (Mattingly 2005, p.455–456) who may have already experienced invisibility and who are then further erased through anonymity by researchers (Scarth & Schafer 2016, p.86); for example, “in some Australian and, in particular, some Indigenous cultures, failing to name sources is both a mark of disrespect and a sign of poor research practice” (Israel, Allen & Thomson 2016, p.296).

As researchers, we must also question if presenting this approach as a vital tenet of social research can become a damaging rule-of-thumb for new researchers who might, therefore, not question the potential undermining of participant agency, and use deidentification unethically as a sweeping regulation within their research without consideration for the individual situations of their research participants. This is part of the issue created by applying a medical model of ethics assessment processes to the social sciences, in which the prevailing interpretation is that deidentification is also required within social research, whereas the reality is that specific agreements between the researcher and the research participant must be honoured.

The ethical dilemma, therefore is: can researchers ethically deidentify participants at the expense of the participants’ agency, potentially perpetuating the historical and symbolic erasure of their voices and experiences? I argue that, based on research design and data collection methods, this decision-making process is an ‘ethics in practice’ and must be approached in context, individually for each study, and for each individual participant.
As scholars, we want to minimise or eradicate harm that might come to our participants through our research. While we think “in advance about how to protect those who are brought into the study” (Tolich 2016, p.30) this must be a continual process throughout our project, in which we “work out the meaning of what constitutes ethical research and human rights in a particular context” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169; also see Ntseane 2009). This is important to note, because protection does not only refer to participants but also to others connected to them. For example, the use of a real name at the request of a participant may expose their family member(s) who were not part of the research.

Consequentialist approaches to ethics suggest that “an action can be considered morally right or obligatory if it will produce the greater possible balance of good over evil” (Israel, 2015: 10; also see Reynolds, 1979). This is an approach we could take to issues around deidentification; however, this also means that researchers must know what is good or bad. In studies like mine, this would mean knowing (or making an attempt, or an assumption to know) what is good or bad for my research participants. This action is infantilising, and places the researcher above the research participant by making the final call ourselves, which is to remove participant agency – if we can assume participants are autonomous during the research consent process, we must also assume that they are autonomous in making decisions with respect to their identification (Said 2016, p.212). Additionally, this action may be culturally insensitive given that Western human research ethics committees follow Western cultural guidelines, centring the dominance of Western academia.

The ethical issues I faced during my PhD research highlight why researchers cannot take a sweeping approach to deidentification in qualitative research – not even for a single study. ‘Ethics in practice’ means that each participant’s situation is analysed individually, and issues around erasure, safety, and their agency weighed against each other to reach a conclusion. I propose that if this conclusion is at odds with the preference of the participant, that it must then be taken back to the participant for further discussion. Not implementing this aspect of ‘ethics in practice’ goes against social science ethics, that we must avoid doing long-term and systemic harm, both of which come through erasure and silencing. We must also remember that “any research project has the potential to further disenfranchise vulnerable groups” (Breckenridge, James & Jops 2016, p.169), and ignoring the wishes of participants regarding their identification due to a Western model of ethics can cause further damage to these groups.

References:
Aleksievich, S., Whitby, J. & Whitby, R. 1992, Zinky Boys: Soviet voices from a forgotten war, Chatto & Windus, London.

Breckenridge, J., James, K. & Jops, P. 2016, ‘Rights, relationship and reciprocity: Ethical research practice with refugee women from Burma and New Delhi, India’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds), Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 167–186.

Dingwall, R. 2016, ‘The social costs of ethics regulation’, in W.C. van den Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 25–42.

Israel, M., Allen, G. & Thomson, C. 2016, ‘Australian research ethics governance: Plotting the demise of the adversarial culture’, in W.C. van der Hoonaard & A. Hamilton (eds),The Ethics Rupture, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, pp. 285–216.

Mattingly, C. 2005, ‘Toward a vulnerable ethics of research practice’, Health: An Inderdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 453–471.

Ntseane, P.G. 2009, ‘The ethics of the researcher-subject relationship: Experiences from the field’, in D.M. Mertens & P.E. Ginsberg (eds), The Handbook of Social Research Ethics, 1st edn, Sage, Thousand Oaks, pp. 295–307.
Ransome, P. 2013, ‘Social research and professional codes of ethics’, Ethics and Values in Social Research, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, pp. 24–53.

Said, D.G. 2016, ‘Transforming the lens of vulnerability: Human agency as an ethical consideration in research with refugees’, in K. Nakray, M. Alston & K. Whittenbury (eds),Social Sciences Research Ethics for a Globalizing World: Interdisciplinary and Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Routledge, New York, pp. 208–222.

Scarth, B. & Schafer, C. 2016, ‘Resilient Vulnerabilities: Bereaved Persons Discuss Their Experience of Participating in Thanatology Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 85–98.

‘Tolich, M. 2016, ‘Contemporary Ethical Dilemmas in Qualitative Research’, in M. Tolich (ed.), Qualitative Ethics in Practice, Left Coast Press, Walnut Creek, CA, pp. 25–32.

Statement of interest
No interests to declare.

Contributor
Anna Denejkina | Casual Academic and PhD  candidate in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, researching intergenerational trauma transmission UTS | Staff profileAnna.Denejkina@uts.edu.au

This post may be cited as:
Denejkina A. (24 May 2018) Stop centring Western academic ethics: deidentification in social science research. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/stop-centring-western-academic-ethics-deidentification-in-social-science-research-anna-denejkina

Can Your HREC Benefit from Coaching?0

 

Atul Gawande, an American surgeon and researcher, sparked a debate in the medical community seven years ago with his New Yorker article Personal Best, in which he explored the benefits of coaching. The best athletes in the world, he reasoned, rather than sitting on their hard-earned laurels, employ coaches as a matter of course, to scrutinise and review their game, work on imperfections and amplify their strengths. He discovered that many elite musicians do, too. So why did other types of professionals not consider the advantages of coaching as an option for improving performance? Professionals, he concluded, are educated in a discipline, and then, their learning complete, sent out into the world to get on with it.

The situation and practice in New Zealand are quite different and warrant separate discussion. Martin Tolich and Barry Smith will write a separate post on this in a future edition.
Much the same, we at AHRECS have found, are many Human Research Ethics Committees. In Australia, members are engaged for their “relevant skills and/or expertise”, as required by para 5.1.28 of the National Statement for the Ethical Conduct of Human Research, but exactly what those are is not spelled out, and a lack of volunteers sometimes means institutions will settle for a person who merely falls within the membership criteria in para 5.1.30. While a wise recruiter of HREC members will raise questions about familiarity with ethical frameworks, and group decision-making dynamics, the National Statement does not mandate the possession of skills in either of these.
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It is to be hoped that a new HREC, and new HREC members, will receive an induction that covers both. Para 5.1.29 of the National Statement, after all, requires both the induction and the ongoing education of members. However, the most recent available NHMRC annual Report on the Activity of Human Research Ethics Committees and Certified Institutions(for 2016) indicates that fully one-third (33%) of HRECs do not provide new members with induction, and that over a quarter (27%) had provided none of their members with any training at all over the past year. Of the 77% of HRECS which reported that “at least one” member had received training during the year, it is not reported whether morethan one member has, leaving open the possibility that the figures are considerably worse. And from my own experience, some HRECs do not even provide that training themselves, but rely on diligent members to source and pay for their own.
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It is no wonder, therefore, that many HRECs struggle to reach a common understanding of the concepts in the National Statement, become bogged down in detail, or adopt a risk-averse adversarial culturethat stifles the progress of their institution’s research. They need a fresh set of eyes and an injection of new thinking that will not detract from their existing body of experience and expertise, but will challenge and build upon it.
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Gawande’s article provides trenchant examples of the benefits he has experienced as a surgeon from introducing coaching to his practice – beginning, simply, with engaging another experienced surgeon to observe and comment on his surgeries. He recently revisited the issue in his December 2017 TED Talk “Want to get great at something? Get a coach”. In this presentation Gawande shows compelling instances of the improvements coaching has brought to teams of health practitioners, not only in terms of their expertise but in their group culture and strategic problem-solving skills.
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There are a number of options for institutions seeking to support their HRECs through coaching.  Mainstream executive coaches may offer assistance in the areas of chairing and group decision-making.  More specialist research ethics expertise may be sourced from the HRECs of other institutions, or from previous Chairs.  The AHRECS team is committed to life-long learning and improvement, and we, too, offer practical, cost-effective coaching to facilitate real improvement for committees at any level of sophistication. Whatever solution you choose, significant value can be gained by having impartial, experienced experts observe your HREC in action, make practical and nuanced suggestions for improvement, and identify obstacles to best practice.  As a bonus, HRECs can also use coaching to meet the requirements of the National Statement for the continuing education of members.
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The world’s best professionals recognise the advantages that coaching can bring. HRECs can, and should, seek those benefits too.
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Contributor
Sarah Byrne, AHRECS senior consultant | Sarah’s AHRECS profilesarah.byrne@ahrecs.com

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This post may be cited as:
Byrne S. (22 May 2018) Can Your HREC Benefit from Coaching?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/can-your-hrec-benefit-from-coaching

What’s been going on at AHRECS0

 

We’re thrilled by how the AHRECS team has been growing and the expertise Sarah, Barry and Nik have brought to the team and the new services we can now provide. We hope in the coming weeks to announce some more additions to the team. The central ethos of resourcing reflective practice remains unchanged and we still strive to be a voice for constructive change.

You may have noticed a few refinements of the AHRECS web site have been happening quietly:

  • The Resource Library ahrecs.com/resources: the search functionality has improved (but still needs some work), and there’s now related materials with a link to other items in the Resource Library.
  • The blog pages ahrecs.com/blog: a form to subscribe to the Research Ethics Monthly; pdf copies of earlier editions, and within stories there will be links to related blog items and related Resource Library items.
  • The Our Services pages https://ahrecs.com/our-services  describes our various service.
  • The Research Ethics Adviser Platform https://ahrecs.com/about-this-service can now be used to obtain expert and independent advice on a research ethics review application prior to its submission to a research ethics committee. A quick advisory costs AUD50 and can be returned in less than 14 days.
  • The AHRECS home page has links to the COPE site (AHRECS is an associate member of COPE) and Retraction Watch (we’re proud to support their work).

The Research Ethics Monthly and Resource Library will remain free, but work is underway to:

  • Provide downloadable vignettes and discussion activities.
  • Short articles reflecting on recent news in the human research ethics/research integrity spheres.
  • An AHRECS app for smartphones.
  • A human research ethics game.
  • A research integrity game.
  • An online Q&A clinic.
  • Hosted webinars
  • And much more.

We hope that strikes you as useful, because we’re excited to be working on them.

Hints for Using Worked Examples in Training Sessions0

 

First of all a frank acknowledgement by the AHRECS team – In the past we’ve merrily used invented applications/vignettes, sometimes with deliberately inserted defects, and de-identified real proposals (with permission) in the professional development activities we’ve facilitated. We did so as a way to help research ethics reviewers and researchers (but reviewers made up the overwhelming majority of these workshops) to spot mistakes and in doing so demonstrating they understood an ethical principle or a specific provision of a statement/code/policy. At the time we might even have congratulated ourselves on providing a real world practical activity rather than merely telling attendees what they should do.
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A couple of years ago each of us drew the same conclusion and were horrified – The use of ‘can you find the hidden flaw’ exercises was part of the reason for the adversarial climate between researcher and research ethics reviewers. They reinforce the message that the job of a research ethics review body is to find what’s wrong with a project, that members are being effective if they find something other members may have missed and that they should expect to find ethical defects: that is, an (unwarranted) assumption that participants need to be protected from researchers.
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As Jim notes, examples can be used positively in professional development activities for research ethics reviewers and researchers. Such activities can be used as a way to focus on congratulating researchers for novel or elegant solutions to ethics challenges, on facilitating rather than policing research, and how to achieve best practice in review feedback.
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Such examples should be used in all our professional development strategies.
The use of defective examples is dead. Long like the use of positive examples. 

Training sessions for new ethics committee members and new researchers frequently use a completed application as a fully-worked example of how to practically implement legislation, codes, and administrative processes.  There is now a solid body of scientific findings that can guide the effective use of worked examples in promoting learning and its generalisation to new situations.1  Based on these findings, here are three evidence-based hints:

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(1) Walk trainees through at least two completed ethics applications for related projects.  According to the available research, a single example will most likely cause new committee members to see it as an ideal exemplar that all applications must conform to.  Similarly, new researchers will tend to see a single example as an ideal template.  They may try to squeeze all their information into that template even if it metaphorically means pounding square pegs into round holes.  Enabling trainees to study, compare, and contrast two or worked examples dramatically increases understanding of the underlying principles and, more importantly, the ability to see analogies between the examples and new applications.2
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(2) The initial worked examples should be correct, particularly for new members and researchers who are not yet familiar with the legislation, codes, and administrative processes.  As familiarity increases, test cases with deficiencies can then be introduced for study and facilitated discussion.
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(3) The projects described in initial examples should be relatively simple while still being authentic.  Then, as understanding and skill increases, more complex worked examples and test cases can be introduced.4
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Given that the time allocated to a training session may be limited to a few hours, readers may wonder how they are going to find the time for extensively using examples while still covering the principles in the legislation, codes, and administrative procedures.  One way to free up time and promote a better linkage of the principles to ethics applications is to convert a lecture-based “just-in-case” approach to learning to an experiential, trainee-centred, “just-in-time” mode.  This conversion can be accomplished by providing a short (5-10 min) introduction that orients the audience to the main points to be covered.  Then, the principles can be brought out in facilitated discussions at relevant points during walk-throughs of the examples and test cases.
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  1. Renkl A: Toward an instructionally oriented theory of example-based learning. Cognitive Science 2014;38(1):1-37.
  2. Gentner D, Holyoak KJ: Reasoning and learning by analogy: Introduction. American Psychologist 1997;52:32-4.
  3. Stark R, Kopp V, Fischer MR: Case-based learning with worked examples in complex domains: Two experimental studies in undergraduate medical education. Learning and Instruction 2011;21(1):22-33.
  4. Paas F, Van Merrienboer J, Van Gog T. Designing instruction for the contemporary learning landscape. In: Harris IKR, Graham S, Urdan T, editors. APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol 3 Application to Learning and Teaching Washington: American Psychological Association; 2011. p. pp. 335-57.
    http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1688&context=edupapers

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Disclosure of interests

I have no conflict of interest

Contributor
James Kehoe, PhD FRSN
Jim is a Professor of Psychology, UNSW, where his 49-year research career has spanned many areas of learning, memory, and training.  He has served as chair of the Animal Care and Ethics Committee and convener of the Human Research Ethics Advisory Panel (Behavioural Sciences)
Jim’s UNSW staff profileejameskehoe@gmail.com

This post may be cited as:
Kehoe J. (26 March 2018) Hints for Using Worked Examples in Training Sessions. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/hints-for-using-worked-examples-in-training-sessions

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