[Dominique Rivière, "Looking from the Outside/In: Re-thinking Research Ethics Review." Journal of Academic Ethics 9, no. 3 (2011): 193–204. DOI: 10.1007/s10805-011-9139-y]
Rivière has had her share of ethics-committee frustrations. In the spring of 2007, she and colleauges submitted an ethics protocol that they expected would take 3-6 weeks to be approved. Instead, the prcocess took six months, leaving Rivière "with a decidedly critical view of the purpose and functioning of the institutional ethics review process." (194)
The next year, Rivière herself joined the REB, and, she reports,
my perspective on research ethics review has changed ... somewhat. I'm not nearly as critical of the process as I had been when I was outside it: I now understand that the REB's requests for more information and documentation were so that they could make a well-informed decision about our protocol, not so that they could contain and constrain our project to fit a research model with which they were more familiar—and, therefore, more comfortable. Moreover, I've come to realize that many of the questions asked by the REB are exactly the questions that researchers should be already asking of themselves: for example, is the nature of the intended research relationship to the participants is one of "power over" (e.g. teacher-student)?; are their intended methods supported by the project's rationale?; is community consent desired or required before the research can begin?; is participant compensation appropriate (e.g. if so, in what form(s)? If not, why not?). As I reflect on the experience of seeking ethics approval for our multi-sited study, however, I realized that what was troublesome to me—though I couldn't articulate it in this way at the time—was that I felt the research ethics office wasn't asking the kinds of questions that the research team should have already been asking of ourselves: the kinds of questions that would help us to frame ethically the decisions that, as critical, social justice-oriented researchers, we would have to make "in the field." (195)
In particular, Rivière questions the standardized consent process imposed by REBs on all manner of research; she argues that "this particular process of consent does not fully let participants know what they are agreeing to . . ."
She proposes a more open-ended review process.
What if research ethics review encouraged researchers to outline an ongoing "trust process", in addition to a consent process? That is, what if researchers were asked to outline those "public actions of the body" we would perform in order to earn participants' trust? What if we had to outline how we might mediate trust and credibility in face-to-face interactions with our research participants? This might help to create a productive tension between receiving ethics approval and being an ethical researcher: first, researchers would be attempting to articulate the ethical issues of their work as they understand them; and, second, researchers would then be able to inform their institutions' ethics review boards about those issues, thus making the review process educative, rather than regulatory. (202)
I am advocating for the research ethics review process to support researchers differently as they reflect on the ethical dilemmas, tensions and issues that are specific to the nature and context of the research they are conducting, by deliberately troubling their assumed understandings of "informed consent", instead of expecting them to twist, bend, and otherwise reshape their research such that it conforms to an a priori set of definitions. (203)
That sounds nice, and it resembles some of the suggestions found in Martin Tolich and Maureen H. Fitzgerald, "If Ethics Committees Were Designed For Ethnography," Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics 1 (2006): 71-78. But I would have liked Rivière to consider whether the structure of ethics committees and offices dictates their approach to ethics review.
First, there is the question of expertise. A committee drawn from across the university will lack deep expertise on many of the proposasl before it. I think this explains some of the reliance on a priori definitions.
Second, Rivière hints that it was not the REB but the "research ethics office" that was responsible for much of the delay of her initial project and for asking the wrong questions. Does the rise of IRB and REB staff lead to inappropriate demands on researchers?
Third, and most significantly, Rivière suggests a dichonomy between the educative and the regulatory, but she does not ask whether moving from the latter to the former will need structural changes. Sociologists Carol Heimer and JuLeigh Petty have argued--persuasively, I think--that the "bureaucratized research ethics" Rivière dislikes is a product of government policies, organizational interests, and professional self-interest. Unless IRBs and REBs are stripped of some of their coercive power, I wonder if we can expect any serious changes.