On 3rd February 2017 the ‘Guardian‘ published a short piece entitled ‘Unethical academics are making a mockery of our education system’ in which the unknown author made a number of damning accusations against academics and researchers. The piece has already stimulated considerable commentary from readers who are generally concerned about the ‘broad-brush statements made without any specific detail nor evidence’ (LeonaP) and the ‘many sweeping statements and factual errors’ (GCday). Like others, I was also astonished  that such an ill-informed and inaccurate piece could find space in the pages of the ‘Guardian’.

It is, of course, sometimes the job of journalists to be controversial in the hope that they will generate debate but this paper has achieved this because there is so much wrong with the paper. It is difficult to believe that the ‘Guardian’ allowed this one to slip through so it has to be assumed that this was a deliberate attempt to be controversial. Even if that were the case, the author still demonstrated a fundamental lack of understanding and it is hard to believe that they have any genuine experience in higher education or research. Regardless of the authors background and experience, it remains disappointing that the ‘Guardian’ didn’t take greater responsibility for the accuracy for the piece.

In commenting on the content, it’s hard to know where to begin but as someone with a particular interest in research ethics, and as a researcher based in a university, I would like to highlight just three problems with the piece with regard to the ethical conduct of research:

  1. The author repeatedly refers to ‘ethics committees’ when they should be referring to ‘research ethics committees’ (RECs). The author comments on issues relating to research ethics and more widely to the ethical conduct of academics. It is unwise to jumble the two. RECs will focus on the ethical conduct of research whilst ethics committees will consider the wider ethical conduct of academics, of students and of the university as a whole.
  2. The author states that ‘universities now have research ethics committees to oversee the quality of research’ (my italics). This is clearly not the case because whilst RECs will focus on the ethical conduct of research, they cannot possibly have any serious oversight over the quality of the research. Ensuring the quality of research conducted in a university falls to the wider academic and research community, including academic supervisors, directors of research, senior researchers and, ultimately, to journal editors. The author would appear to have limited understanding of how research is reviewed and managed in universities.  They have failed to recognise that research can be deemed ethical at the outset but then, for whatever reason, not be research of high quality.
  3. In the second paragraph, the author states that ‘ … academics working in non-traditional areas are not even engaging with the research ethics committee at their own universities’ (again I have used italics to correct the author’s error). It is not clear how anyone working in a modern university can possibly be in any doubt about the need to seek ethical approval for all research involving human participants, regardless of discipline. The author’s comment might have been true a couple of decades ago but not in 2017.

So in only the first two paragraphs of the piece it has been possible to highlight significant flaws in how the piece has been written and in the author’s understanding of the current context for research ethics review in universities.

The author has placed considerable emphasis on the role of university RECs but even this appears to be making a dangerous assumption that these RECs are always fit for purpose. In June 2016 an article was published in ‘Research Ethics‘ in which the authors report considerable variance and inconsistencies in the way that university RECs approach and manage the ethical review of research (Vadeboncoeur et al 2016). Whilst the NHS and the Health Research Authority (HRA) have taken huge strides over the past decade in creating a research ethics service that is fit for purpose, I fear the same cannot be said of university RECs.

As an NHS REC Chair for the past ten years, a past university REC Chair and an active researcher, I have long had concerns about the quality of the ethical review of research in universities. In the NHS there is now high quality ethical review undertaken by well trained REC members in a timely manner and to a strict set of standard operating procedures. Whilst there might be some training available in universities, there seems to be a belief that just because someone is an experienced researcher they will also have the skills and knowledge required to undertake rigorous ethical review. This is clearly not the case.

What is most frustrating for researchers, as reported in Vadeboncoeur et al’s (2016) paper, is the inconsistency between institutions or even, sometimes, within the same institution. Perhaps it’s time that serious thought is given to implementing a systematic approach to ethical review and the training of REC members across all universities in the UK.

Reference:

Vadeboncoeur C, Townsend N, Foster C, Sheehan M (2016) Variation in university research ethics review: reflections following an inter-university study in England. Research Ethics. 12(4), 217-233.

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