Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What Good Are Statements of Committee Approval?

Sara Jordan and Phillip Gray argue that public administration journals should follow medical journals' requirements "that all articles describe informed consent and ethics committee approval or why these were waived."

[Sara R. Jordan and Phillip W. Gray. “Reporting Ethics Committee Approval in Public Administration Research.” Science and Engineering Ethics (April 2013): 1–21. Accessed May 6, 2013. doi:10.1007/s11948-013-9436-5.]

Jordan and Gray find that less than three percent of public administration articles "report having obtained ethical clearance by the relevant committee at their institution," compared to 33 percent that report outside funding.

They find this troubling for two reasons. The first is that they crave the respect of other disciplines.

If the reputation of an academic field rests on its appraisal by other scholars as conforming to the norms of good science, then evidence of insufficient attention to substance, methods, or ethics stand to damage the reputation of a field. Failing to report ethical clearances, consistently to report methods and participant numbers, and to report ethical considerations raises the possibility that researchers in public administration could be accused of questionable research practice.

The authors offer no examples of scholars from other field whose respect for public administration research has been diminished by the absence of ethics committee statements. Interdisciplinary respect and appreciation is a complex matter, involving everything from expectations of external funding to prose style. In the absence of evidence, I'm skeptical the absence or presence of committee approval plays an important part.

Second, Jordan and Gray note that "in the event that later researchers hope to replicate a study, information on the ethical considerations about the research could assist them to design their later study in ways that saves them time and hassle with their own ethics committees."

This strikes me as a stronger argument, but a brief line stating that a project was approved by an ethics committee would not be sufficient for a later researcher to design a follow-up study. Only if the researchers deposited their applications in a depository like TEAR would others have the information they needed. Thoughtful essays about research ethics in fora such as the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics or Ethics CORE would also be more helpful than boilerplate statements.

A better strategy, then, might be for researchers and journals to include references to fuller statements of their ethics reasoning, rather than equate committee approval with ethical action. Mere statements of approval are neither necessary nor sufficient for the goals articulated by Jordan and Gray.


Sara Jordan said...

Dear Dr Schrag,
Thank you for your insights into our article. We agree with you that mentioning review may not be the best we can do. In other venues we discuss how a Social Science IRB may not be the best that could be done vis-a-vis social science researchers or research participants in social sciences, either. In many ways, we agree with the premise of Ethical Imperialism-- social scientists are wedged into a system that is ill-suited for us. However, we hope that you can agree that variability in ethical requirements for disciplines that wish to claim the mantle of science introduces problems for research ethics, responsible conduct of research, and outlining justifications for either separating the disciplines or enforcing the same rules upon them.
Of course, you'll recognize that the way that this article was framed and the venue in which it appears is a bit unusual for the topic. The hell of attempting to publish this in social science journals was a sincere shock. Incredulous responses such as "we're not a science like the IRB means, so we don't have to play by their rules; we're not poking people in the eyes with sticks like the doctors do" were the norm, not the exception. This from reviewers at journals with science in their title. Thus the problem: social and political scientists are a science when we stamp our little feet and demand we are (such as when we want NSF funding), and are not a science when we stamp our little feet and demand we aren't (because we don't like the rules). This defies logic.

We loved your book and assign pieces of it in classes.

Zachary M. Schrag said...

Thanks for these comments.

To hold that such broad terms as "science" can have multiple meanings depending on context is not a defiance of logic. That is why laws and regulations, including human subjects regulations, often include lists of definitions.