Human research ethics committees face workloads that can very easily become crippling, consequently precedent-based decision making can appear to be a sensible survival strategy.
An HREC might decide to adopt such a strategy for several reasons:
• a desire to turnaround applications for research ethics review as quickly as possible;
• a commitment to being consistent and fair;
• to minimize the demands on committee members; and
• keep the discussion moving in meetings.
Typically such a survival strategy might relate to a component of a research design: ‘What do we normally do when researchers want to offer a prize-draw as an incentive to encourage participation?’. It might also be about the potential participant pool or context, ‘What did we do the last time an application related to research in China?’. Sometimes it can relate to the researchers, ‘Have we allowed counsellors to conduct research on their own clients before?’. Or, even more troublingly, it might pertain to an entire research discipline, methodology or research practice, ‘What did we do the last time we reviewed participatory action research?’.
There is a fair chance that the committee/other review body will not have specifically discussed adopting a precedent-based approach. It might be previously the Chair and/or ethics officer have previously been challenged by an applicant, ‘The last time you reviewed research like this you…’.
Making decisions by precedent has the allure of a legal approach which can seem to provide a decision authority, fairness and a degree of predictability that all might seem to make the work of the reviews more professional. It also looks deceptively like the philosophical approach of casuistry which uses reasoning by analogy to tackle complex ethical issues.
But, it is a seductive trap and Committee Chairs, members and ethics officers should be very wary.
Precedent-based thinking has a number of serious flaws:
a. Decisions should be based upon the specifics of individual projects – the research design, the question/objectives of the work, the potential participant pool, the context, the risks and benefits of the project, and the expertise of the researchers. In Australia, the National Statement is based on principles not rules and HRECs should not attempt to subvert the basis of the National Statement for their own convenience. Those countries that have adopted inflexible rules about research ethics have not had a happy experience and the United States is just taking the first steps away from this (Dingwall, 2015);
b. Applicants may well not have access to information about those precedents, so rather than the decision being seen as fair and consistent it might be seen as arbitrary and unfair;
c. Precedent-based decisions are likely to be conservative and risk averse; and
d. Such decision making encourages researchers to outsource their ethical responsibilities to the reviewers, ‘There is no way I can know all about research ethics review so I’ll just tell the reviewers what I want to do and they’ll tell me is it’s okay’. It also reinforces the message that the review is a one way communication, with edicts being issued, rather than an engaged and reflective discussion.
So what is the alternative?
Research ethics review bodies and research offices should work together to produce resource material for researchers and reviewers that identify ethical matters requiring attention, relate them to the principles and provisions of the National Statement (or relevant national framework) and provide the basis for the constructive approach to addressing those challenges.
Research ethics review decisions should reference the resource material, the national framework/institutional policy, and invite researchers to share their reflections on the given matter and explain why the propose approach is better/more appropriate for the specifics of the situation.
If a project is novel and/or applicants produce an elegant solution to an ethical challenge they should be congratulated (not beaten over the head with a precedent) and perhaps the solution included in the resource material.
The best solution to crippling workload might be to work smarter, rather than inflexibly.
Dingwall, R (2015) Deregulating Social Science Research Ethics – Clipping the Wings of IRBs? Social Science Space, blog posted 5 November http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2015/11/deregulating-social-science-research-ethics-clipping-the-wings-of-irbs/
Gary Allen is the author of the Griffith University Research Ethics Manual a resource manual for researchers and research ethics reviewers.
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G (2015, 16 November) The seductive peril of precedent-based decision making. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/the-seductive-peril-of-precedent-based-decision-making