Let’s start with fire safety. Used correctly, fire blankets (and other fire protection equipment) can manage a hazard and prevent increased harm. Institutions have a regulatory responsibility to make staff aware of standards by providing training in fire safety and correct behaviour.
While in Australia there is no human research ethics legislation, the National Statement is generally recognised as the national standard for human research ethics. The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research is the national standard for research integrity. Similarly, researchers need to be aware of the institution’s and national policies, procedures and arrangements with regards to human research ethics/research integrity (NS 3.47, AC Researcher Responsibility 16).
Institutions have risk exposure if staff are unaware of the standards for safe and appropriate behaviour. This includes correct use of equipment and evacuation procedures.
Both the National Statement and Australian Code contain provisions that describe it as an institutional responsibility to train researchers in human research ethics (NS 3.1) and integrity (AC Institutional Responsibility 4).
Institutions need to track whether staff have participated in training. A component of that tracking is likely to be whether they have ‘passed’ a quiz about the institution’s arrangements.
What constitutes appropriate and safe ethical research procedure is highly dependent on the research (sub)discipline, methodology, research topic, researcher experience and context. Consequently, if training consists of choosing the correct multiple-choice answer, it is unlikely the list will suit every situation.
Correct fire safety procedures include such things as selecting the correct fire extinguisher/equipment for different fires and the correct technique for operating the equipment.
In the context of human research, it is simply not accurate to imply there is one strategy/equipment/technique that will be always appropriate for every individual project. In fact, the standard (the National Statement) refers to the need to exercise judgement and provide justification.
The object with fire safety training is to impart information that individuals can always apply to any fire. You would not, for example, want individuals to come up with a novel strategy for handling a fire blanket or fire extinguisher. This could inflame the situation [pun intended]!
In reality, few human research ethics/research integrity challenges have only a single solution. For example, the need to obtain consent could be met by one of any number of consent strategies. Indeed, a single research project might use a number of strategies for different components of the project.
Researchers should be encouraged to develop novel solutions to human research ethics challenges and problems. For example, when settling on the best consent strategy, a researcher might decide to use an animated video on a smartphone as a way to appropriately, respectfully and in an inclusive manner, provide complex information to potential participants.
The implications are that what works for fire safety and institutional responsibility doesn’t work for human research ethics/research integrity. Training that emphasises one consistently correct answer is unlikely to teach the skills needed. We need to move past the misconception we can use the strategy that works for fire safety for professional development in the human research ethics and research integrity spheres.
A BETTER APPROACH
We propose professional development where participants are provided with a module of information, and then asked to apply the discussed ideas to their own work. For example, the learning module could present the material in the National Statement about consent, the required features of a consent strategy, as well as the institution’s resources related to consent. The attendees might then be asked to describe a valid consent strategy. In this case, it isn’t individuals knowing the ‘correct’ answer, it is them being able to thoughtfully apply the information to their needs. At least for now, the response to this question will need to be assessed by a person with a good grasp of the topic. Such assessment will need an allocation of time for the assessor, combined with some automated systems.
The implications of having such an approach to professional development is that human research ethics and research integrity is not a question of learning the correct answer for problems, it’s being able to thoughtfully consider and apply concepts to problems in the field. This recognises both the complexity of the fields and democratises responsibility for reflection. AHRECS uses the term resourcing reflective practice to describe this way of thinking about human research ethics/research integrity.
In the case of fire regulations and legislation, an institution that fails to meet its obligations would be fined and face legal proceedings and potentially civil proceedings.
The consequences for an institution failing to meet its human research ethics or research integrity obligations are less clear (see Thomson 2018). Given the framing of the ARC and NHMRC deeds of agreement, there is theoretical risk that a non-compliant institution would lose its eligibility for funding.
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. (27 January 2021) Why human research ethics and research integrity aren’t fire blankets Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/why-human-research-ethics-and-research-integrity-arent-fire-blankets/