Friday, February 18, 2011

Anxious Pessimism on UK's New Framework for Research Ethics

In March 2010, the United Kingdom's Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) released its Framework for Research Ethics (FRE) as a successor to its 2005 Research Ethics Framework (REF).

David Erdos kindly alerted me to the November 2010 (Volume 15, Issue 4) issue of Sociological Research Online, which devotes a special section to essays about the new framework.

The six essays in the section suggest that British sociologists are wary of their research ethics committees and the expanded authority granted to them by the new framework.

Stanley and Wise: In Search of "Real Expertise"

In the lead article, "The ESRC's 2010 Framework for Research Ethics: Fit for Research Purpose?," Liz Stanley and Sue Wise--guest editors of the special section--find that "the Framework for Research Ethics must be responded to as bad in its entirety and lobbied against by the social science community."

Stanley and Wise are no fans of ethics review. Citing critical literature from the United Kingdom, Canada, and the United States, they warn of "the probability . . . of RECs finding appropriate work to do to justify their resourcing, the training received, the workload and administrative relief given, and over time acting around their own rules of thumb and custom and practice, including by making use of external expert advisors, and with significant differences in the practices of different RECs coming into existence . . . We do not accept 'good intentions', then, as anything other than platitudes which cannot be guaranteed to translate into longer term REC practice."

They point to three worrisome changes from the 2005 FRE:

firstly, the system is to be fully mandatory, in the sense that it is no longer possible, as previously, for research applications to make the case that no out of the ordinary ethical issues arise; secondly, the Research Ethics Committees (RECs) set up in the ESRC's 2005 document have been reconfigured, with their extended remit including reviewing all research proposals accepted by the ESRC and other funding bodies; and thirdly, funding will depend on the REC review, with its purview extending through a project's life.

Stanley and Wise are particularly contemptuous of the FRE's assumption that multidisciplinary committees can muster the expertise necessary to review a wide range of project.

The RECs are seen, through their committee constitution, to have some kind of free-floating 'expertise' providing competence to evaluate the specificities of particular located pieces of research. We reject this notion of ethics as a general 'expertise', for a committee cannot build up supposed competence without the contextual and disciplinary know-how that real expertise comes from.

Review by pseudo-experts, they fear, could undercut the true peer review that can provide sound advice on matters both methodological and ethical: "why would someone agree to act as an ESRC assessor of research proposals, when the RECs can change or overturn the considered scholarly judgements of assessors reporting on a particular proposal?"

Stanley and Wise wish for a regime that would respect disciplinary differences. "There is not one social science community," they argue, "with very different approaches existing which impact on all aspects of research, differentiating the social sciences from each other, differentiating even different paradigms and methodologies from others in the same discipline. These particularities matter because they relate to fundamental matters of how epistemology and ontology are conceived . . . " They also note, "The professional bodies of sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists and social policy specialists have no place within the FRE framework, while for us an ethics framework that does not proceed from the ethical guidelines of the relevant professional associations is deficient and lacks intellectual credibility. This ignoring of disciplinary guidance is also a failure to recognise how 'light-touch' approaches could be better implemented by some deference/recognition of difference amongst research communities and also provide RECs with the opportunity to appropriately refer to and make use of disciplinary guidelines."

Stanley and Wise's faith in disciplinary expertise leads them to hope that the British Sociological Association will lead the attack on the new FRE. Here's hoping.

Holmwood: Beware Specialists in Research Ethics

John Holmwood's "Research Ethics Committees (RECs) and the Creaking Piers of Peer Review," generally shares Stanley and Wise's concerns. Holmwood is particularly worried about

the apparent need for a researcher to be able to identify all the possible 'harms' in advance of beginning the research or prior to seeking informed consent from participants. In Section Two of the FRE (2010: 28), where risks in the dissemination of research are discussed, possible 'harms' to elite interviewees are identified. It is acknowledged that it may be important to publish critical findings about policies and organisations. However, it appears with the qualification, "but was this within the original remit of the research" (2010: 28). By implication, possible criticism of commercial and government organisations needs to be flagged up when negotiating consent. Not only does this seem to be an undue protection of the powerful, but the FRE thereby provides recourse for complaints to be made against researchers. In this context, it becomes even more important that there be an independent body to adjudicate such cases, since an individual's own institution may be inclined to accommodate commercial and government concerns, given the importance of the impact agenda.

Like Stanley and Wise, Holmwood is also worried about ethics review by committees that don't understand the research they are reviewing.

As Mich̬le Lamont (2009) has shown, interdisciplinary peer review can work very effectively (under certain conditions, which includes the presence of a subject specialist in the reviewing group), but the risk is that RECs will not be conceived in this way, since their members will be encouraged to regard themselves as specialists in research ethics, rather than the subjects in which those ethics are embedded. Indeed, this was a feature of all the training I received as part of my recruitment to a REC, where any argument that there might be alternative standards for different kinds of research began a search for a 'proxy' for the preferred standard. Equally, the argument that we might learn from journalistic ethics Рthat exploratory research might have something akin to investigative journalism Рwas regarded as inappropriate. There was a clear boundary circumscribing social scientific research and then an issue of establishing standards across the research within that boundary.

As an REC chair, Holmwood was able to break through these boundaries by insisting that proposals be reviewed by experts not on his REC. But he acknowledges that this practice put additional burdens on scholars already struggling with requests for reviews of articles, grants, and other academic projects.

Reed: "We need to actively resist ethics creep"

Kate Reed complains of "a Taylorist approach to research evaluation" in her essay, "The Spectre of Research Ethics and Governance and the ESRC's 2010 FRE: Nowhere Left to Hide?"

Like Stanley and Wise, Reed fears review "by people who know little about the research
field/discipline." A veteran of "somewhat farcical" review by a hospital ethics committee, she now fears that review of social science will be even more onerous than that of health-related research, where ethics review and funding consideration remain separate. "Social research can be and often is a very positive experience for many people - respondents and researchers alike," she notes. If the new FRE reduces the amount of social research attempted, research participants will be among the losers.

Hammersley: Accountability vs. Independence

Martyn Hammersley's essay, "Creeping Ethical Regulation and the Strangling of Research," points up the contradictions that result from the ESRC's halfhearted effort to address the concerns of social scientists:

For example, the discussion of gaining informed consent in the FRE suggests that 'typically' this should be done in written form, with agreement being 'signed off' by participants (ESRC 2010:28), yet only a little later we are told that 'highly formalized or bureaucratic ways of securing consent should be avoided in favour of fostering relationships in which ongoing ethics regard for participants is to be sustained […]' (p29). In another place, it is insisted that 'innovative' research is to be facilitated (p2), but then researchers are instructed that 'risks should be minimized' (p3). Later it is recognized that 'not all risks can, or in some cases, should be avoided' (p26), indeed that:

research may be 'deliberately and legitimately opposed to the interests of the research participants/organizations' in cases where the objectives of the research are to reveal and critique fundamental economic, political or cultural disadvantage or exploitation' (ESRC 2010:27).

However, on the next page we are informed that:

political sensitivities may arise when findings are contrary to local or national policy. It may be important to publish critical findings about policies and organisations, but was this within the original remit of the research? Were the participants aware that this could be a consequence of their participation?

As Hammersley notes, the phrase, "deliberately and legitimately opposed to the interests of the research participants/organizations" is borrowed from the 2002 Tri-Council Policy Statement. He could have added that that document, as well as the latest TCPS, features contradictions similar to those she documents in the new FRE.

Hammersley puts the expansion of ESRC and REC power into the broader context of the corporatization of the university, which prefers audits to autonomy:

The chances of successfully resisting the creep of ethical regulation are low given that it is part of a much wider shift in the whole character of universities, and of the research that is carried on within them (Hammersley 2010). Moreover, the extension of ethical regulation is lubricated by an ideology that is hard to challenge. This assumes, rightly, that there are genuine ethical concerns associated with social research, but exaggerates them, and also assumes, wrongly, that these can be eliminated or minimised through establishing accountability regimes. It is striking that the FRE formulates ethics in terms of 'protecting' all involved from the 'risks' associated with research through demanding 'compliance' with 'good practice'. As already noted, there is an exact parallel here with similar ventures in other parts of the public sector where 'transparent accountability' regimes have been set up in order to deal with problems or to 'ensure' improvement. The fact that, generally speaking, these policies have failed to achieve their goals – and have, generally, undermined good practice and commitment to it – does not terminate belief in the driving ideology. People want to believe that accountability procedures work, because they find the alternative – trusting professional judgment – unacceptable.

Orton-Johnson: Not All Internet Research Is Risky

Kate Orton-Johnson's "Ethics in Online Research; Evaluating the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics Categorisation of Risk" takes particular offense at the Framework's requirement of full committee review for "Research involving respondents through the internet, in particular where visual images are used, and where sensitive issues are discussed."

"In its assumption that all forms of internet research are inherently problematic," Orton-Johnson writes, "the FRE neglects the methodological and disciplinary breadth of web-based enquiry and, in doing so, threatens to tar a number of research settings and tools with too strict an ethical brush."

Full review may not be necessary, she suggests, for research that merely "employs the global reach of the internet as a cost effective survey tool." And RECs who face internet-based protocols are likely to apply the FRE's rigid requirements of written, informed consent rather that the more flexible approach advocated by the Association of Internet Researchers.

"Rather than contributing to lively debate and tackling some of the emergent, complex and contested understandings of what ethical online research might look like," she concludes, "the ESRC FRE framework unhelpfully proposes a formal review structure that is reminiscent of early moral panics around the potential social impacts of new technologies."

Rustin: Pick Your Battles

The final essay, "The Risks of Assessing Ethical Risks" by Michael Rustin, notes the lack of empirical evidence for the need for ethics review "in the form of reports of actual harms suffered in consequence of research projects having been approved without formal ethical scrutiny. (Some reference is made in FRE 2010 to information being internally available about these matters, but no indication is given of what this was.)" Nor has there been any empirical study comparing various forms of regulation, such as "light touch" vs. full committee review, or ethical review by scientific reviewers.

Nevertheless, Rustin is more hopeful (or less gloomy) than the other authors in the section about the actual effects of the new FRE:

It is clear that according to the ESRC 2010 Framework, and in the real world of today, the crucial institutions and processes are those of the university and other RECs, and it to the operations of these that practical attention must be given. FRE 2010 seems to me to be more pragmatic in this respect than Stanley and Wise allow. In one part of the document at least, it does provide for RECs to be constituted on a Faculty or discipline basis, so far as their detailed consideration of projects is concerned, and proposes that second-tier RECS working at an institution-wide level should confine themselves to broad oversight, to a quality assurance function in effect, and should not engage in consideration of specific research proposals. The provision for review of ongoing projects suggests only 'occasional' investigations, against suggesting that the ESRC is anxious to cover every theoretical eventuality, without wanting to submerge research under a burden of continuous surveillance. (One could make a logical case for researchers having to report every year – every three months – on their own ethical conduct, but even the most anxious regulators can see the need for some proportionality).

[Note: Rustin's mention the "one part of the document [that] proposes that second-tier RECS working at an institution-wide level should confine themselves to broad oversight" would appear to be a reference to Section of the FRE, which allows a faculty-, school-, or department-based committee "defined by an area of substantive and methodological
expertise." Yet Section 1.5.2 states that "RECs should be multidisciplinary." As Professor Hammersley notes, internal consistency is not the FRE's strong suit.]

The real problem, Rustin suggests, lies not with the national FRE, but with the operations of local RECs, which even before the release of the FRE were imposing restrictive demands. He counsels social scientists that while it might be nice to have research reviewed by subject experts alone, "this argument has been lost, and it has now become the conventional wisdom that ethical issues must be dealt with as a specialist function," and that working toward a less restrictive FRE is equally futile. He concludes, "I doubt if there is now any way forward for researchers but to seek to make this REC system work constructively, thereby building into it the elements of trust and responsibility which are the essence of ethical practices of any kind."

Schrag: The Question is Who, Not When

For the most part, I share the authors' pessimism about the expanded reach of British RECs. I do not, however, share the hostility to the idea of ongoing review expressed by Stanley and Wise, Hammersley, and Reed. Reed, for example, interprets the FRE's requirement that investigators inform RECs of new developments as an invitation to "extensive micro-management through auditing places incredible constraints on research projects. Not
only will researchers be constrained at the start of the project but also during and after it, as plans for dissemination now also comes under the purview of ethics . . . Faced with such endless bureaucracy and surveillance, many social researchers will simply give up on data collection or produce research of questionable validity that tells us very little about what actually exists out in the field."

Perhaps. But I would point out that the effort to assess all risks in advance is one of the vices of ethics committees. Encouraing committees to let researchers write up their studies and then engage in ethical proofreading, that is, to put ethics review at the end of a project rather than the start, might help some projects.

Of course, pre-publication review would still depend on forming committees of people knowledgeable about the ethics of a particular discipline. As the authors of these essays point out, there is little hope of such committees being formed under the new FRE.

NOTE: The six essays cite a fair number of articles by the authors and other British scholars that are new to me, suggesting I need to work harder to keep up with the British literature on RECs. In related news, Robert Dingwall has started a thread on the new Sage site, social science space inviting readers to relate Absurd decisions by Ethics Committees.

No comments: