Sunday, March 1, 2015

University of Queensland Punishes Researchers, Won't Say Why

The University of Queensland demoted a professor and blocked him and another researcher from publishing findings, based on charges that they had not obtained necessary ethics clearances. But the university will not explain its conduct.

[Jorge Branco. “UQ Suppressed Bus Racism Study: Academics.” Brisbane Times, February 27, 2015. Thanks to Michelle Meyer for tweeting this to my attention.]

A Study of Racial Discrimination

The Brisbane Times explains the initial study:

In 2013, Dr Redzo Mujcic and Professor Paul Frijters, from the university's School of Economics, published an early working paper finding strong evidence of discrimination against black-skinned people on Brisbane buses.

Their study, inspired by US civil rights figure Rosa Parks' experience of racial discrimination on a bus, saw 29 testers from different gender and ethnic groups asking bus drivers to let them on for free because their Go Cards were empty.

The researchers found white testers were twice as likely to be given a free ride than black testers (72% to 36%), among a host of other findings relating to group theory.

They proposed this was due to people being more likely to discriminate against those who were less like them, or not in their "in-group".

As Ian Ayres explains in the New York Times, "This elegant experiment follows in a tradition of audit testing, in which social scientists have sent testers of different races to, for example, bargain over the price of new cars or old baseball cards. But the Australian study is the first, to my knowledge, to focus on discretionary accommodations."

Frijters had gained approval by the the university's department of economics. But after the research was complete, Senior Deputy Vice-Chancellor Deborah Terry told Frijters that he should have sought approval from a university ethics committee. The university demoted him to assistant professor, though he has been restored to his previous rank.

Australia's National Statement Allows This Sort of Thing

Multiple provisions of Australia's National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research allow for covert research and research designed to expose illegal behavior, as well as for department-level review.

The National Statement specifically states that

Research that is intended to study or expose illegal activity or that is likely to discover it must be reviewed and approved by a Human Ethics Research Committee (HREC) rather than by one of the other processes of ethical review described in paragraphs 5.1.7 and 5.1.8 (page 78), except where that research uses collections of non-identifiable data and involves negligible risk, and may therefore be exempted from ethical review. (emphasis added)

That sounds like this case. The study may be embarrassing to the bus company, but there's no way to show that individual bus drivers misbehaved.

Weighing in after the fact, bioethicist Dr Andrew Crowden says that "the research was more than low risk because it involved deception of participants (the bus drivers) and therefore should have been reviewed by the UQ HREC (Human Research Ethics Committee)." But Chapter 2.1 of, which deals with harms, does not define low risk in terms of deception or disclosure, so Crowden has his categories confused. Nor is clear that the students deceived the bus drivers. If they had boarded with truly exhausted cards, would that have obviated the need for ethics committee review?

(Crowden would be better off citing sections 2.3.6 and 2.3.7, which seem to state that only an HREC can waive the requirement of consent.)

The University of Queensland Refuses to Explain Its Decisions

To be sure, the university might be able to demonstrate that Mujcic and Frijters deliberately violated university policies. Or, as seems more likely, that they made a good-faith effort to follow confusing rules, which need to be clarified.

Instead, the university went silent. Frijters submitted a public interest disclosure, and, after waiting six months without a reply, went public with his story.

The Brisbane Times reports, "UQ vice-chancellor and president Professor Peter Hoj issued a statement saying the university was unable to comment because of the confidentiality of the investigation but was confident it had responded appropriately." Terry, the former UQ administrator who reprimanded Frijters, also declined to comment.

This is the real scandal. I have quoted Jack Katz before, and I will quote him again:

Legality changes the interaction environment of decisionmaking by creating a series of processes in which the reviewed become capable of examining and publicly criticizing the review to which they are subjected, both on a retail, case-by-case basis, and on a wholesale, policymaking level. [Jack Katz, "Toward a Natural History of Ethical Censorship," Law & Society Review 41 (December 2007), 805.]

The University of Queensland has failed not only its researchers but also everyone who has an interest in research ethics and in the fair provision of public services. An ethics process without transparency is no ethics process at all.

No comments: