Adam Hedgecoe reports on two cases in which British university administrators turned to their university research ethics committees (URECs) not to protect the subjects of research, but to block controversial research they feared would tarnish the universities’ reputations.
[Adam Hedgecoe, “Reputational Risk, Academic Freedom and Research Ethics Review,” Sociology, June 25, 2015, doi:10.1177/0038038515590756.]
No sex, please
The first case concerns a Kingston University undergraduate who wanted to explore “female students’ decision to enter the sex industry.” The project got preliminary approval from an REC subcommittee, which asked only that the researcher stay safe and keep interviewees anonymous, and even agreed not to review consent forms lest that step slow down the research.
For reasons not clear from the article (Hedgecoe is working with a limited set of documents extracted with a Freedom of Information request), the supervisor then requested full committee review. This committee forbad the student from interviewing any fellow Kingston students. And while Hedgecoe doesn’t have a smoking gun showing that the ethics committee was primarily concerned about the university’s reputation for driving its students into prostitution or other sex work, he comes close with an e-mail from the university publicity and press office to the student’s supervisor:
What worries me is that although I’m sure the research does highlight it [i.e. student sex work] as a problem globally as well as nationally, your research is based on a survey undertaken with [our] University students and it’s the publicity surrounding that which concerns me. The story has hit the international press in India which, as you probably know, is a big market for [the University]. [Brackets in the Hedgecoe article.]
Stymied, the researchers fell back on asking students if they knew someone else engaged in sex work, a dodge that “provided a conduit through the maze of research ethics committee requirements.”
An "easy and convenient" censorship board
In the second case, Nottingham University administrators sought to use the ethics committee to punish its affiliates for reading or teaching The Al-Qaida Training Manual, a document available on the U.S. Department of Justice Website and, for a time, at the university library.
A vice chancellor wrote that “now that we have clarity on the nature of the Al Qaeda manual it would be reasonable to ask the question whether access went through the Ethics Committee in the School of Politics,” and the registrar told a doctoral student that citing the manual in his dissertation was “a question for the research ethics committee.” Then the Head of School asked an REC subcommittee to review a list of teaching materials prepared by Rod Thornton, a lecturer at the university.
One REC member had the integrity to refuse, writing, “I am not aware of anything in the remit of Ethics Committee that would warrant a procedure whereby its members become responsible for the approval of module handouts [reading lists].” But the other two members raised no such concerns, and the Head of School insisted that “Whilst the vast majority of matters that may require a view in regard to ethics will be research-related, there are cases (such as the present one) where other matters may legitimately fall within the remit of an ethics committee.” Asked why, he explained, “ I wanted to be in a position to protect [the] School against any adverse criticism and the ethics committee existed, was easy and convenient and could act in short time.”
Stealthy restrictions on research
Though Hedgecoe has only these two stories documented by Freedom of Information requests, he suggests, quite plausibly, they are just the tip of the iceberg. He offers them as evidence “that URECs in the UK are quite capable of mirroring the behaviour of their US counterparts.” URECs, he warns, “present a new, and largely unacknowledged, stealthy, mechanism through which management can restrict, not just what academics say to the press or on their blogs, but what research they do in the first place.”