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Australian Code 2018: What institutions should do next1

 

Gary Allen, Mark Israel and Colin Thomson

At first glance, there is much to be pleased about the new version of the Australian Code that was released on 14th June. A short, clear document that is based upon principles and an overt focus on research culture is a positive move away from the tight rules that threatened researchers and research offices alike for deviation from standards that might not be appropriate or even workable in all contexts.

The 2007 Code was rightly criticized on several grounds. First, weighing a system down with detailed rules burdened the vast majority with unneeded compliance for the recklessness and shady intentions of a very small minority. Second, there was reason to suspect the detailed rules did not stop the ‘bad apples’. Third, those detailed rules probably did not inspire early career researchers to engage with research integrity and embrace and embed better practice into their research activity. Finally, the Code did little to create an overall system able to undertake continuous improvement.

But, before we start to celebrate any improvements, we need to work through what has changed and what institutions and researchers need to do about it. And, then, maybe a quiet celebration might be in order.

Researchers have some fairly basic needs when it comes to research integrity. They need to know what they should do: first, as researchers and research supervisors in order to engage in good practice; second, if they encounter poor practice by another researcher; and, third, if other people complain about their practices.

The 2007 Australian Code offered some help with each of these. In some cases, this ‘help’ was structured as a requirement and over time was found wanting. The 2018 version appreciated that these questions might be basic but that the answers were often complex. The second and third questions are partly answered by the accompanying Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Code (the Investigation Guide) and we’ll return to this. The answer to the first question is brief.

The Code begins to address responsibilities around research integrity through a set of eight principles that apply to researchers as well as their institutions: honesty; rigour; transparency; fairness; respect; recognition of the rights of Indigenous peoples to be engaged in research; accountability, and promotion of responsible research practices. Explicit recognition of the need to respect the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples did not appear in the 2007 version. There are 13 responsibilities specific to institutions. There are 16 responsibilities, specific to researchers, that relate to compliance with legal and ethical responsibilities, require researchers to ensure that they support a responsible culture of research, undertake appropriate training, provide mentoring, use appropriate methodology and reach conclusions that are justified by the results, retain records, disseminate findings, disclose and manage of conflicts of interest, acknowledge research contributions appropriately, participate in peer review and report breaches of research integrity.

In only a few cases might a researcher read these parts of the Code and conclude that the requirements are inappropriate. It would be a little like disagreeing with the Singapore Statement (the one on research integrity, not the recent Trump-Kim output). Mostly, the use of words like ‘appropriate’ within the Code (it appears three times in the Principles, twice in the responsibilities of institutions and five times in responsibilities of researchers) limit the potential for particular responsibilities to be over-generalised from one discipline and inappropriately transferred to others.

There are some exceptions, and some researchers may find it difficult to ‘disseminate research findings responsibly, accurately and broadly’, particularly if they are subject to commercial-in-confidence restrictions or public sector limitations, and we know that there are significant pressures on researchers to shape the list of authors in ways that may have little to do with ‘substantial contribution’.

For researchers, the Code becomes problematic if they go to it seeking advice on how they ought to behave in particular contexts. The answers, whether they were good or bad in the 2007 Code, are no longer there. So, a researcher seeking to discover how to identify and manage a conflict of interest or what criteria ought to determine authorship will need to look elsewhere. And, institutions will need to broker access to this information either by developing it themselves or by pointing to good sectoral advice from professional associations, international bodies such as the Committee for Publication Ethics, or the Guides that the NHMRC has indicated that it will publish.

We are told that the Australian Code Better Practice Guides Working Group will produce guides on authorship and data management towards the end of 2018 (so hopefully at least six months before the deadline of 1 July 2019 for institutions to implement the updated Australian Code). However, we do not know which other guides will be produced, who will contribute to their development nor, in the end, how useful they will be in informing researcher practice. We would hope that the Working Group is well progressed with the further suite if it is to be able to collect feedback and respond to that before that deadline.

There are at least nine areas where attention will be required. We need:

1. A national standard data retention period for research data and materials.

2. Specified requirements about data storage, security, confidentiality and privacy.

3. Specified requirements about the supervision and mentoring of research trainees.

4. A national standard on publication ethics, including such matters as republication of a research output.

5. National criteria to inform whether a contributor to a research project could or should not be listed as an author of a research output.

6. Other national standards on authorship matters.

7. Specified requirements about a conflicts of interest policy.

8. Prompts for research collaborations between institutions.

For each of those policy areas the following matters should be considered:

1. Do our researchers need more than the principle that appears in the 2018 Australian Code?

2. If yes, is there existing material upon which an institution’s guidance material can be based?

3. Who will write, consider and endorse the guidance material at a national or institutional level?

Many institutions will conclude it is prudent to wait until late 2018 to see whether the next two good practice guides are released and discover how much they cover. Even if they do so, institutions will also need to transform these materials into resources that can be used in teaching and learning at the levels of the discipline and do so in a way that builds the commitment to responsible conduct and the ethical imaginations of researchers rather than testing them on their knowledge of compliance matters.

Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches

The Code is accompanied by a Guide to Managing and Investigating Potential Breaches of the Code (the Investigation Guide). The main function of this Guide is to provide a model process for managing and investigating complaints or concerns about research conduct. However, before examining how to adopt that model, institutions need to make several important preliminary decisions.

First, to be consistent with the Code, the Guide states that institutions should promote a culture that fosters and values responsible conduct of research generally and develop, disseminate, implement and review institutional practices that promote adherence to the Code. Both of these will necessitate the identification of existing structures and processes and a thorough assessment to determine any changes that are needed to ensure that they fulfil these responsibilities.

This means that institutions must assess how their processes conform to the principles of procedural fairness and the listed characteristics of such processes. The procedural fairness principles are described as:

  • the hearing rule – the opportunity to be heard
  • the rule against bias – decisionmakers have no personal bias in the outcome
  • ‘the evidence rule – that decisions are based on evidence.

The characteristics require that an institution’s processes are: proportional; fair; impartial; timely; transparent, and confidential. A thorough review, and, where, necessary, revision of current practices will be necessary to show conformity to the Guide.

Second, when planning how to adopt the model, institutions need to consider the legal context as the Guide notes that enterprise bargaining agreements and student disciplinary processes may prevail over the Guide.

Third, the model depends on the identification of six key personnel with distinct functions. Some care needs to be taken to match the designated roles with the appropriate personnel, even if their titles differ from those in the model, in an institution’s research management structure. The six personnel are:

  • a responsible executive officer, who has final responsibility for receiving report and deciding on actions;
  • a designated officer, appointed to receive complaints and oversee their management;
  • an assessment officer or officers, who conduct preliminary assessments of complaints;
  • research integrity advisers, who have knowledge of, and promote adherence to, the Code and offer advice to those with concerns or complaints;
  • research integrity office, staff who are responsible for managing research integrity;
  • review officer, who has responsibility to receive requests for procedural review of an investigation.]

Last, institutions must decide whether to use the term ‘research misconduct’ at all and, if so, what meaning to give to it. Some guidance is offered in a recommended definition of the term but, as noted above, this will need to be considered in the legal contexts of EBAs and student disciplinary arrangements.

Conclusion

The update to the Code provides a welcome opportunity to reflect on a range of key matters to promote responsible research. The use of principles and responsibilities and the style of the document offers a great deal of flexibility that permits institutions to develop their own thoughtful arrangements. However, this freedom and flexibility comes with a reciprocal obligation on institutions to establish arrangements that are in the public interest rather than ‘just’ complying with a detailed rule. We have traded inflexibility for uncertainty; what comes next is up to all of us.

Click here to read about the AHRECS Australian Code 2018 services

The Contributors
Gary Allen, Mark Israel and Colin Thomson – senior consultants AHRECS

This post may be cited as:
Allen G., Israel M. and Thomson C. (21 June 2018) Australian Code 2018: What institutions should do next. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/australian-code-2018-what-institutions-should-do-next

We invite debate on issues raised by items we publish. However, we will only publish debate about the issues that the items raise and expect that all contributors model ethical and respectful practice.

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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