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Clergy service to HRECs: the useful paradox within secular governance of research involving human participants0


Aviva Kipen, Union for Progressive Judaism and Progressive Judaism Victoria.

In 2015, I earned a Doctor of Ministry Studies degree from the University of Divinity in Melbourne. The thesis, investigating how 13 Christian and Jewish clergy experienced HREC service in their pastoral care roles, arose from my own human research ethics committee and Victorian Biotechnologies Ethics Advisory Committee service and extensive interfaith work. I had been mentored into my service to the Monash University HREC by the Rev’d Dr Judy Redman, the then Victorian Uniting Church Outreach Ministries Coordinator. I found myself in the company of Anglican clergy and had succeeded Catholics – nuns and priests – Buddhist monks and also male rabbis who had served before me. Joining Judy, the serving female minister, made the gender issue less remarkable than it might otherwise have been, even in the late 1990s. The faith interchanges on succession raised my immediate curiosity that would later lead to the research question and the project on which this piece draws.

The then National Guidelines were clear: we clergy appointees were not there to push our own denominational barrows. Still, I became curious about what was really going on in the minds of others who served HRECs interchangeably from a range of faiths and traditions regardless of often-irreconcilable theologies in the ‘pastoral chairs’. My interfaith work meant I was confident that, in the event of content matters being beyond my own repertoire, I would have an extensive network from which to seek expert guidance if asked to do so. But HREC appointment provides an opportunity to serve far beyond the specifics of faith content occasionally referenced in research applications.

I became aware that the recruitment of ‘the pastor’ in other committees was not always simple. I had been spotted at a meeting about chaplaincy in women’s prisons! How had others been identified and invited to join committees? What constituted their self-understanding of the ministry service being gifted to the committees they served? Would my interviews disclose any kind of ‘evangelism by stealth’?  Did faiths or denominations target access to committees assessing large amounts politically/theologically/ethically sensitive, kinds of research?

I discovered no documents showing the means by which the Catholic Church became an early adopter of the opportunity to be represented, but clearly there were Catholic clergy leading the discussion in the early years. My research showed great diversity within the voices of the Christian ministers. Even within denominations, including between current serving Catholics, there was diversity of expression on ground-breaking issues. It became clear that the one participant who asserted his role as being to represent the Catholic position, was the exceptional Catholic voice. Other Catholics applied the provisions of the current National Statement informed by their own faith understanding, but with broad appreciation for other communities’ concerns.

Many clergy enjoyed the intellectual effort of meeting preparation and assessing applications, perhaps indicating a somewhat obsessive character trait. The rigor of disciplined meetings, the collegiality with co-assessors and committee colleagues was experienced by many as a valued counterweight to congregational demands. When appointed, some experienced a bit of resistance and some took a gentle ribbing. But as they became known and trusted on their merits and performance, tenures were frequently extended. There was some inference that if individuals had theologies unable to embrace the content or methodologies required in assessing projects, it would be unlikely that they would find their way onto committees. A few references to short tenures alluded to non-renewal of clergy who were not a good fit.

The diversity of appointments reflects the neighbourhoods/communities served by HRECs and is appropriately representative of our national diversity. One participant was from a highly conservative evangelical denomination. The interview triggered deeply thoughtful reaction about personal identity relative to the HREC work. I would later find out that the reflection resulted in some major theological grappling as a consequence of the conversation. Regardless of denomination, interviewees found themselves intrigued by the attention my investigation was bringing to HREC clergy/pastoral work, which had almost invariably been out of the faiths’ hierarchical spotlights. Most remained entirely grateful for the freedom to do the HREC work without such attention.

One pastor described choosing not to participate in a committee discussion because he was aware his personal knowledge was not sufficient. It was a frank admission. The example begs the question of how applications need to enable comprehension and how lay and other non-disciplinary experts are enabled in their roles. Others found solutions to specific matters of dogma by offering wordings that would provide enough cues to the faith’s adherents to ensure they were going to be able to make informed choices without imperilling projects. What emerged was that clergy were clear about their denominational obligations and the tension between them and the needs of others in the general community.

Given that the task of assessing applications and contributing to meetings is identical for all HREC members, how do clergy understand themselves alongside their colleagues (who may be harbouring strong religious views but are not required to disclose them and which need not be presumed) as contributors to the wellbeing of the research landscape? Several clergy described pastoral care for committee colleagues and secretariat staff, by virtue of regular contact with them. This was implicit and automatic pastoral work. Care for researchers and participants whom the HREC members will never meet, is also natural pastoral work and a clear driver for clergy in their appointments.

Serving HRECs also provides clergy with a window to unfolding knowledge, a forward-looking perspective, regular use of critical faculties not always appreciated in congregational work, intelligent company, confidential settings in which they can be full participants without any oversight from their hierarchies resulting in contributions that don’t need to follow predictable, dogmatic lines, and a chance to serve beyond the faith or denomination. Australia has encoded high standards for itself in the research domain. Participants in my research were clear that high ethical research standards fit congruently into their understanding of their ministry work and several specialise in HREC work as their ministry interest. Many of these have high-level academic qualifications and years of expertise, which are offered repeatedly to the Australian community through HREC service.

Rabbi Dr Aviva Kipen has held Monash University HREC appointments and served on the Victorian Bio-Ethics Advisory Committee. She returned to serve a second term on the Australian Health Ethics Committee of NHMRC in 2019 and has begun the current triennium for the Victorian DHHS HREC. All comments reflect material in the thesis Kipen, A. (2015) Serving God and The Commonwealth of Australia: The Ministry Experiences of Clergy in Victorian Human Research Ethics Committees. Melbourne: University of Divinity.

This post may be cited as:
Kipen, A. (3 November 2019) Clergy service to HRECs: the useful paradox within secular governance of research involving human participants. Retrieved from:

Clergy, religion, denomination, ministry, faith

The F-word, or how to fight fires in the research literature0


Professor Jennifer Byrne | University of Sydney Medical School and Children’s Hospital at Westmead


At home, I am constantly fighting the F-word. Channelling my mother, I find myself saying things like ‘don’t use that word’, ‘not here’, ‘not in this house’. As you can probably gather, it’s a losing battle.

Research has its own F-words – ‘falsification’, ‘fabrication’, different colours of the overarching F-word, ‘fraud’. Unlike the regular F-word, most researchers assume that there’s not much need to use the research versions. Research fraud is considered comfortably rare, the actions of a few outliers. This is the ‘bad apple’ view of research fraud – that fraudsters are different, and born, not made. These rare individuals produce papers that eventually act as spot fires, damaging their fields, or even burning them to the ground. However, as most researchers are not affected, the research enterprise tends to just shrug its collective shoulders, and carry on.

But, of course, there’s a second explanation for research fraud – the so-called ‘bad barrel’ hypothesis – that research fraud can be provoked by poorly regulated, extreme pressure environments. This is a less comfortable idea, because this implies that regular people might be tempted to cheat if subjected to the right (or wrong) conditions. Such environments could result in more affected papers, about more topics, published in more journals. This would give rise to more fires within the literature, and more scientific casualties. But again, these types of environments are not considered to be common, or widespread.

But what if the pressure to publish becomes more widely and acutely applied? The use of publication quotas has been described in different settings as being associated with an uptick in numbers of questionable publications (Hvistendahl 2013; Djuric 2015; Tian et al. 2016). When publication expectations harden into quotas, more researchers may feel forced to choose between their principles and their (next) positions.

This issue has been recently discussed in the context of China (Hvistendahl 2013; Tian et al. 2016), a population juggernaut with scientific ambitions to match. China’s research output has risen dramatically over recent years, and at the same time, reports of research integrity problems have also filtered into the literature. In biomedicine, these issues again have been linked with publication quotas in both academia and clinical medicine (Tian et al. 2016). A form of contract cheating has been alleged to exist in the form of paper mills, or for-profit organisations that provide research content for publications (Hvistendahl 2013; Liu and Chen 2018). Paper mill services allegedly extend to providing completed manuscripts to which authors or teams can add their names (Hvistendahl 2013; Liu and Chen 2018).

I fell into thinking about paper mills by accident, as a result of comparing five very similar papers that were found to contain serious errors, questioning whether some of the reported experiments could have been performed (Byrne and Labbé 2017). With my colleague Dr Cyril Labbé, we are now knee deep in analysing papers with similar errors (Byrne and Labbé 2017; Labbé et al. 2019), suggesting that a worrying number of papers may have been produced with some kind of undeclared help.

It is said that to catch a thief, you need to learn to think like one. So if I were running a paper mill, and wanted to hide many questionable papers in the biomedical literature, what would I do? The answer would be to publish papers on many low-profile topics, using many authors, across many low-impact journals, over many years.

In terms of available topics, we believe that the paper mills may have struck gold by mining the contents of the human genome (Byrne et al. 2019). Humans carry 40,000 different genes of two main types, the so-called coding and non-coding genes. Most human genes have not been studied in any detail, so they provide many publication opportunities in fields where there are few experts to pay attention.

Human genes can also be linked to cancer, allowing individual genes to be examined in different cancer types, multiplying the number of papers that can be produced for each gene (Byrne and Labbé 2017). Non-coding genes are known to regulate coding genes, so non-coding and coding genes can also be combined, again in different cancer types.

The resulting repetitive manuscripts can be distributed between many research groups, and then diluted across the many journals that publish papers examining gene function in cancer (Byrne et al. 2019). The lack of content experts for these genes, or poor reviewing standards, may help these manuscripts to pass into the literature (Byrne et al. 2019). And as long as these papers are not detected, and demand continues, such manuscripts can be produced over many years. So rather than having a few isolated fires, we could be witnessing a situation where many parts of the biomedical literature are silently, solidly burning.

When dealing with fires, I have learned a few things from years of mandatory fire training. In the event of a laboratory fire, we are taught to ‘remove’, ‘alert’, ‘contain’, and ‘extinguish’. I believe that these approaches are also needed to fight fires in the research literature.

We can start by ‘alerting’ the research and publishing communities to manuscript and publication features of concern. If manuscripts are produced to a pattern, they should show similarities in terms of formatting, experimental techniques, language and/or figure appearance (Byrne and Labbé 2017). Furthermore, if manuscripts are produced in a large numbers, they could appear simplistic, with thin justifications to study individual genes, and almost non-existent links between genes and diseases (Byrne et al. 2019). But most importantly, manuscripts produced en masse will likely contain mistakes, and these may constitute an Achilles heel to enable their detection (Labbé et al. 2019).

Acting on reports of unusual shared features and errors will help to ‘contain’ the numbers and influence of these publications. Detailed, effective screening by publishers and journals may detect more problematic manuscripts before they are published. Dedicated funding would encourage active surveillance of the literature by researchers, leading to more reports of publications of concern. Where these concerns are upheld, individual publications can be contained through published expressions of concern, and/or ‘extinguished’ through retraction.

At the same time, we must identify and ‘remove’ the fuels that drive systematic research fraud. Institutions should remove both unrealistic publication requirements, and monetary incentives to publish. Similarly, research communities and funding bodies need to ask whether neglected fields are being targeted for low value, questionable research. Supporting functional studies of under-studied genes could help to remove this particular type of fuel (Byrne et al. 2019).

And while removing, alerting, containing and extinguishing, we should not shy away from thinking about and using any necessary F-words. Thinking that research fraud shouldn’t be discussed will only help this to continue (Byrne 2019).

The alternative could be using the other F-word in ways that I don’t want to think about.


Byrne JA (2019). We need to talk about systematic fraud. Nature. 566: 9.

Byrne JA, Grima N, Capes-Davis A, Labbé C (2019). The possibility of systematic research fraud targeting under-studied human genes: causes, consequences and potential solutions. Biomarker Insights. 14: 1-12.

Byrne JA, Labbé C (2017). Striking similarities between publications from China describing single gene knockdown experiments in human cancer cell lines. Scientometrics. 110: 1471-93.

Djuric D (2015). Penetrating the omerta of predatory publishing: The Romanian connection. Sci Engineer Ethics. 21: 183–202.

Hvistendahl M (2013). China’s publication bazaar. Science. 342: 1035–1039.

Labbé C, Grima N, Gautier T, Favier B, Byrne JA (2019). Semi-automated fact-checking of nucleotide sequence reagents in biomedical research publications: the Seek & Blastn tool. PLOS ONE. 14: e0213266.

Liu X, Chen X (2018). Journal retractions: some unique features of research misconduct in China. J Scholar Pub. 49: 305–319.

Tian M, Su Y, Ru X (2016). Perish or publish in China: Pressures on young Chinese scholars to publish in internationally indexed journals. Publications. 4: 9.

This post may be cited as:
Byrne, J. (18 July 2019) The F-word, or how to fight fires in the research literature. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

“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

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

Travelling Consultants and Professional Development Roadshows0


Prof. Mark Israel plans to be in CANBERRA (2-3 April), SYDNEY (8-10 May), UK and Belgium (27 May-8 June), MELBOURNE (13 June) and Perth (22-26 April, 1-5 July) should any universities, health services or research organisations wish to meet to discuss their research ethics or research integrity needs with an AHRECS Senior Consultant.

Prof. Colin Thomson plans to be in CANBERRA (8-10 April), BRISBANE (30 April – 1 May).

Mark and Colin are also available to run professional development workshops for HRECs, academic or professional staff, in research ethics and research integrity including the changes to the National Statement and the new Australian Code.

AHRECS has other consultants based in those cities or who travel through regularly should these dates not be convenient. Of course, we also remain available by videoconference at other times.

Send an email to if you would like any further information.