Two scholars from the University of South Africa claim that more than one in four articles they sampled in two journals of public administration involved “research of a more than minimal risk level.” This claim appears to be based on a misunderstanding of U.S. regulations.
[Jacobus S. Wessels and Retha G. Visagie, “The Eligibility of Public Administration Research for Ethics Review: A Case Study of Two International Peer-Reviewed Journals,” International Review of Administrative Sciences, September 3, 2015, 0020852315585949, doi:10.1177/0020852315585949.]
The error appears in Table 2, on p. 11 of the article. The authors list the following categories of “potential benefit and risks of the data-collection methods or techniques used”:
- Individual interviews as a data-collection method (greater than minimal risk)
- Group interviews as a data-collection method (greater than minimal risk)
- Observation as a data-collection method (no risk to greater than minimal risk)
- Conceptual research (no risk)
Apparently, Wessels and Visagie believe that under U.S. definitions, all individual and group interviews should be regarded as greater than minimal risk. This is not correct.
Though the authors claim to be following the categories established by the U.S. regulations (p. 12), they have not consulted OPRR’s 1998 Categories of Research That May Be Reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) through an Expedited Review Procedure, a list of the most common forms of minimal risk research. This list specifically includes “Research on individual or group characteristics or behavior (including, but not limited to, research on perception, cognition, motivation, identity, language, communication, cultural beliefs or practices, and social behavior) or research employing survey, interview, oral history, focus group, program evaluation, human factors evaluation, or quality assurance methodologies.”
Wessels and Visagie sampled 70 journal articles and report, “nearly 18 (26% of the total sample) of the articles reported on research of a more than minimal risk level.” This figure, repeated four times, is undoubtedly an overestimate, since it includes all interview projects, regardless of risk.
To be sure, public administration researchers may occasionally wander into challenging ethical territory. For instance, Wessels and Visagie cite an article by Iranian scholar Behzad Mashali, who asked government officials about their beliefs about corruption. In the United States, such a project would qualify as both exempt and minimal risk, but Iran jails journalists without due process, so what might its government do to employees who speak, even abstractly, about corruption?
I don’t know, but neither do Wessels and Visagie. Instead of doing careful analysis of the case studies they’ve identified, they have deployed a simple and erroneous criterion to produce a misleading claim.