Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The Australian

John Mueller kindly alerted me to an essay from Australia: Greg Bamber and Jennifer Sappey, "Consenting Adults and the Path to Truth," The Australian, 21 February 2007.

Bamber and Sappey study management, and their most detailed complaint about human research ethics committees (HRECs, the Australian for IRBs) concerns workplace case studies. They note that such studies

may challenge a unitary view of the workplace as essentially harmonious, which chief executives and their spin doctors seek to promote. This challenge is significant because it seems likely that under the new statement many HRECs will continue with their practice of requiring a researcher to obtain written consent from a chief executive or the equivalent before beginning a case study. A condition of granting consent may be the opportunity to veto output.

How well does this correlate with the university principle that research is the pursuit of truth? In the case of workplace studies, it is reasonable to ask: whose truth - that of the chief executive, other managers, workers or customers? Chief executives' denial of access or their selective filtering of the information provided could deny the work force's (or customers') right to have their truth told.

Unfortunately, having asserted the duty of the researcher to pursue truth, Bamber and Sappey step back to a meeker position:

In view of their health-research paradigm, there is a tendency for HRECs to err on the side of being risk-averse, overstating the importance of consent and of the welfare and privacy of participants, while giving too little weight to the benefits of research to society. In social science research the risks are invariably much lower than in health research.

That last sentence is unworthy of the rest of the essay. How can a study that challenges the power structure of a workplace be less risky than collecting undergraduates' spit? If Bamber and Sappey believe, as I do, that some researchers have the duty to pursue truth and justice, even if that means that a business executive is jailed for corruption or fraud, they should come out and say so. Let's not hide behind the idea that social science research doesn't hurt.

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