The Research Ethicist

Life as a Research Ethicist is an interesting one but does require repeated explanation or justification to those who engage in research.  The first area for clarification is that there is a clear distinction between the role of a clinical or practice ethicist, who might spend time ruminating on important ethical issues in practice situations, and the role of the Research Ethicist.  Whilst many of the principles underpinning decision-making in both fields might be similar, there are also unique issues that separate the different approaches to ethics.

The second area for clarification is that Research Ethicists are not the research police.  They do not spend their time seeking out new and innovative ways to stop research from happening or to make the conduct of research as difficult as possible.  Research Ethicists are those who spend much of their time considering the positive way in which research can and should be conducted, often using a set of ethical principles as their toolkit.

What often makes ethical decision-making in research so complex, is that what is usually considered right is not right in all contexts.  There are generally accepted rules for the ethical conduct of research but there are also massive grey areas that have to be navigated by both researchers and Research Ethicists.  This navigation can result in very different applications of ethical rules and norms in different contexts.  What might seem perfectly reasonable and ethical in one situation might be deemed unethical in a different situation.

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Unfortunately, it remains the case that too many researchers, in all disciplines and in all areas of research, still treat consideration of research ethics, and the requirement to seek research ethics approval, as a unnecessary inconvenience.  As a consequence, they spend too little time and effort in exploring the important ethical issues and how these might be managed.  Whilst there has been considerable improvement over the past couple of decades, especially in the social sciences, the benefits to both researchers and research participants of due consideration of research ethics has still not been universally accepted.

Many who are involved in research do appreciate that spending time considering the ethical implications of a research project can help to ensure the most appropriate design for that research.  For example, whilst all researchers want to recruit as quickly as possible, false expectations can be created if the ethical implications of recruitment are not considered in an honest and realistic manner.  As a Research Ethics Committee (REC) Chair, I know that the most common reason for the submission of protocol amendments is poor recruitment.  In most instances, the cause of the poor recruitment was predictable.

Research Ethicists should be playing more of a role in advising on the conduct of research from as early in the design of the research as possible.  Most researchers who plan to undertake detailed statistical analysis will seek advise from a trained statistician who will advise on matters such as sample size and data analysis.  Research Ethicists should be engaged in a similar way to advise on research ethics.  They should be invited to contribute to the design of research projects, offering expertise on what might be possible from an ethical stance.  Like statisticians, it is essential that Research Ethicists aren’t invited to advise on research projects when it is too late.  How many statisticians struggle to analyse data because they don’t have the volume or quality of data they need.

An inevitable consequence of engaging Research Ethicists as early as possible this is that navigating the necessary research ethics approvals should also be more straightforward and should result in more timely completion of the proposed research.

Ethics

One warning is that ethical advise given is only as good as the person giving it.  I highlight this because I am aware of one large national research project where they have employed someone to advise on research ethics but it is clear that that individual lacked the necessary knowledge and experience.  The result was avoidable delays in progressing the research which wouldn’t have happened with the appropriate ethical support and advise from the outset.

Research has real potential to change people’s lives and this will be achieved in a more timely manner if due consideration is given to research ethics from the inception of the proposed research, through planning and into the conduct of the research.  This might be best achieved with the involvement of those with considerable knowledge and experience of research ethics … the Research Ethicists.

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‘Unethical academics’ and the ethics of research

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.