Friday, August 12, 2011

CITI Program as Mind-Numbing, Coercive, Counterproductive McEthics

Sanjay Srivastava of The Hardest Science kindly alerted me to a newly published critique of the mortifyingly stupid CITI Program.

[Jennifer J. Freyd, "Journal Vitality, Intellectual Integrity, and the Problems of McEthics," Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, available online: 15 July 2011, DOI:10.1080/15299732.2011.602290]

Freyd, the editor of the Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, writes,

Beginning a few years ago many researchers have also been required by their institutions to complete regular mandatory “education” in research ethics. Although the intentions of these requirements are surely good, the resulting implementation has created a new industry of mind-numbing on-line ethics training and testing.

My own institution, like many others, requires all researchers to regularly complete testing using Collaborative IRB Training Initiative (CITI, software. The problem is that passing the CITI tests is neither sufficient nor necessary for ethical behavior. Rather, this method of education and testing is so superficial and coercive that it is arguably counterproductive, promoting a false sense of security and even breeding cynicism. The information presented in the curriculum includes some valuable points, numerous irrelevant details, and a non-trivial amount of incorrect information and opinion labeled as fact. This information is then tested through multiple-choice quizzes shortly after presentation so that no long term retention is required. The only thinking occurs when disputable information is presented and tested; then the researcher must select between purposely entering a wrong answer in order to pass the test or possibly failing the test and thus being unable to do research.

Furthermore, it is considered permissible by many research communities for researchers to scan the CITI study materials at the same time as completing the quiz, thus requiring no retention of study materials even in the short run. In still other research communities, answer sheets are circulated. Although these strategies are obviously against the rules and arguably unethical, the rates of such cheating are apparently very high, probably in part because researchers consider the whole endeavor a foolish waste of time and in part because people will conform to what they believe is normative no matter if it is technically prohibited. It is ironic than an education initiative focused on ethics promotes such unethical behavior. There is very little intellectual integrity in the CITI educational experience from either the perspective of the testing itself or the behavior of the test takers.

Although knowledge is necessary, ethical behavior in research fundamentally involves motivation, problem-solving, and sometimes difficult cost-benefit analyses. What we need instead is a meaningful and intellectually honest educational experience: engage in a debate; serve on the IRB; conduct a study on research ethics. Like many of my colleagues I complete the required CITI training because I must in order to be allowed to conduct research, but each time I go through this process I come out feeling like I've been force-fed a high-fat low-nutrition meal at McEthics.

In case readers missed her point, she also terms the CITI program "hypocritical."

I can't argue with any of these characterizations, nor with Freyd's wish for more interactive ethics training, like the Princeton workshop for historians. But I hope that Freyd and other critics will consider the results of the University of Connecticut survey and take a look at Macquarie University's Human Research Ethics for the Social Sciences and Humanities. The former suggests that a large majority of researchers prefer online training, and the latter shows that web-based training need not be mired in irrelevant details, incorrect information, or opinion labeled as fact.

While we must do away with multiple-choice testing, the chief problem with the CITI Program is not its format but its content, which seems to have been written mostly by administrators and consultants, rather than scholars. If institutions were to allow their researchers to complete online training developed by experts in individual disciplines and written to scholarly standards, researchers could enjoy ethics meals at once fresh, affordable, convenient, attractive, and nutritious.

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