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Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Working flexibly through the Coronavirus: Continuing professional development in research integrity or human research ethics?0

 

Research ethics and research integrity professional development works best as a long-term commitment to building the capacity of the current and next generation of researchers. As universities extend their online capacity to educate coursework students in the face of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and place restrictions on staff travel, there is little reason to close down all professional development for staff and research students.

We think there are a number of compelling reasons to conduct these workshops online.  Online workshops offer an opportunity to trigger research conversations among staff working remotely; their timing can be readily adjusted to meet availabilities and they can also be captured and reused in the institution over the next couple of years.

Using Zoom,[1] AHRECS can deliver online workshops for any number of HDR candidates, supervisors and early career researchers. The workshops would be tailored to your institution and your needs. We have run such workshops across Australia, New Zealand and the broader region.

The basic type of workshop lasts for 55 minutes and works best for up to 20 participants. This workshop costs $2000. https://www.ahrecs.vip subscribers receive a 10% discount. Such a workshop might be a 101 introduction or more advanced and practical. AHRECS can also run longer, more interactive workshops and run sessions for larger groups, on request.

Send an email to emquiry@ahrecs.com to discuss further.

[1] Zoom has the advantage of being free for the user and being accessible via computer, tablet and smartphone.  It also supports connection via phone. Sessions can be recorded.

Lost time may never be found again but is it time to talk about the duration of ethics approvals?0

 

“To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose” a time to report on ethical conduct, a time to renew an approval, or a time to face misconduct proceedings.

Dr Gary Allen

What is the length of ethics approvals that your HREC grants?  In this article, I will discuss this question and some of the reasons for choosing approval periods.

A related question is, under what circumstances should an ethics approval be withdrawn?  Can/should research ethics review bodies withdraw approval because of extended/repeated failure by a researcher to provide an ethical conduct report?

Australia is unlike the US where the conventional interpretation of the Common Rule is that ethics approvals are of one year.  Accordingly, US researchers must provide annual ethical conduct reports to maintain ethics approval and avoid needing to make a fresh application.

In Australia, the duration of approval is not specified by the National Statement and the only clear Australia-wide external requirement to provide reports in a certain time is paragraph 5.5.5 of the National Statement which provides that researchers should report to ethics review bodies at least annually.  As a result, approval duration is likely to be dictated by institutional policy and some have adopted maximum duration periods.  A short (e.g. 12 months) approval period and renewal requirement is one lever committees can use to compel researcher compliance to provide evidence that the needs for approval periods are being met.

There are, I suggest, four such needs that are served by a choice of duration of an ethics approval, namely:

  • Compelling a report from a researcher and allowing a review body to confirm that –
    1. a project is being conducted as per the approval, and
    2. the welfare and interests of participants are still being adequately provided for.
  • Providing an opportunity to reflect on any changes to national standards or institutional policies or pertinent cases that warrant a rethink of approvals.

Researchers can typically seek a long duration ethics approval because:

  • The design calls for repeated data collection across an extended period, such as a longitudinal ethnographic study;
  • The work is a component of a program of work focussed on a cure for a chronic condition; or
  • The work intends to compile an archive of biospecimens, data, document samples, audio-visual material or other items of historical/cultural significance.

The maximum duration of a research ethics approval would also appear to be connected to how long an HREC has operated and the amount of work the committee is undertaking. In Australia, institutional decisions on the matter can also be associated with changes in national ethics review requirements that occurred in 1999, 2007 and 2018 (and beyond).

Like other aspects of human research ethics practice in Australia, the approach to duration has reflected practice in the United States.  While Australia does not have the same kind of regulatory framework as the US where failing to maintain ethics approval can have consequences for institutions, the use of single year approvals is probably used as a way to promote adherence to the institution’s ethical conduct reporting requirement.

While understandable, such short-term approvals can punish conscientious researchers because of an institutional response to recalcitrant researchers.

However, early in a research ethics committee’s operation, it is not uncommon for it to grant approvals with durations of between one and three years.

This can reflect the committee’s confidence:

  1. in its role and decisions;
  2. and trust that researchers understand their responsibilities and will abide within the scope of the ethics approval; and
  3. that projects will progress as per applications or researchers will contact the institution’s research office if the unexpected occurs.

A low workload of a committee can serve as an incentive for short duration approvals and longer duration/longitudinal work is chunked out into two or more applications. Increasing the number of approvals may not allow the committee and research team to develop expertise before the committee commits to an extended period of research. Alternatively, a committee might be tempted to inflate its number of approvals artificially to attract either resources or credibility.

Conversely, when a research ethics committee is very busy, there may be more incentive to grant longer approvals to minimise the number of times the committee needs to review renewals of long duration projects.

Given, the National Statement (2007 updated 2018) is currently silent on the issue of the duration of ethics approvals, it might appear the Australian national framework should not impact on approvals. However, there is both a predictable impact and a real reason to rethink our current approach to the duration of approvals.

At this stage an update to Section 4 of the National Statement might be released in the next six months and an update to Section 5 will move out of the planning stage shortly.

Some institutions and committees tie the duration of ethics approvals and forced renewal around the timeframe during which the national arrangements might change (and perhaps inter alia institutional policy).  In Australia this might equate to around a five year approval duration.

The changed approach to updates to the National Statement means that such a cycle might not be especially helpful.

Suggested change to duration and monitoring procedures

We recommend institutions and HRECs do the following:

  1. Adopt a policy setting that the conduct of human research without prior ethics approval may be considered a breach of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2018) and of the institution’s research integrity arrangements. This would be consistent with the Investigation good practice guide.
  2. Adopt a policy setting that any proposed change to a project must be submitted for prior review, otherwise the conduct of a project in a manner not in adherence to its ethics approval may be considered in breach of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2018) and the institution’s research integrity arrangements.
  3. Adopt the practice of reminding researchers of their responsibility –
    1. to consider and safeguard the welfare of research participants
    2. to remain reflective of whether the risks of a project are justified by its benefits
    3. to remain reflective of the degree to which the project addresses the core ethical principles of the National Statement
    4. notify the HREC of any changes with regard to 3a-c.
    5. Notify the HREC if any participant raises a concern about the ethical design or conduct of a project. Including notifying the HREC if any participants withdraw consent because of a concern about ethical matters.
  4. Adopt a policy that a researcher who fails to meet the responsibilities described at 3 may be considered in breach of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2018) and the institution’s research integrity arrangements.
  5. Adopt a policy that an ethics approval can be approved for the planned duration of a project.
  6. Adopt a policy that researchers must submit an ethical conduct report every 12 months during the currency of an ethics approval. Extended/repeated failure to do so may be considered a breach of the Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (2018) and the institution’s research integrity arrangements.
  7. Adopt a practice of timed reminders to researchers to provide overdue ethical conduct reports, culminating in breach proceedings[1].
  8. Adopt a policy and practice that every five years a clearance is active the research office/HREC assess whether there are circumstances that require a new ethics review of a project.

In most cases, a new review should not be required, but a standardised, clear checklist should be used to determine whether a new review is required. Subscribers to https://www.ahrecs.vip or https://www.patreon.com/ahrecs will find a suggested checklist for conducting such a check.

On this basis, I suggest research ethics review bodies/research offices can and should withdraw approval because of extended/repeated failure by a researcher to provide an ethical conduct report.  This however must be based upon documented policy and procedure.  It must also be foreshadowed in ethics approval notifications, report reminders and resource material.

[1] The approach here might be constrained by the research management system the institution is using.  This includes usefully tracking correspondence between the researchers and the research office.

This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. (3 March 2020) Lost time may never be found again but is it time to talk about the duration of ethics approvals?. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/lost-time-may-never-be-found-again-but-is-it-time-to-talk-about-the-duration-of-ethics-approvals

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: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/clergy-service-to-hrecs-the-useful-paradox-within-secular-governance-of-research-involving-human-participants

Keywords
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.

References

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: https://ahrecs.com/research-integrity/the-f-word-or-how-to-fight-fires-in-the-research-literature

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