In separate essays, Nathan Emmerich and Igor Gontcharov argue for more flexible systems that would avoid imposing biomedical ethics on the social sciences. Emmerich calls for an emphasis on professional ethics, while Gontcharov seeks “a set of ethical principles that would better reflect the position of [social sciences and humanities] researchers and participants.” I am left unsure what either proposed reform would look like in practice.
[Nathan Emmerich, “Reframing Research Ethics: Towards a Professional Ethics for the Social Sciences,” Sociological Research Online 21, no. 4 (2016): 7, DOI: 10.5153/sro.4127; Igor Gontcharov, “A New Wave of Positivism in the Social Sciences: Regulatory Capture and Conceptual Constraints in the Governance of Research Involving Humans,” SSRN Scholarly Paper (Rochester, NY: Social Science Research Network, October 31, 2016), DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.2861908.]
Emmerich seeks professional ethics
Emmerich argues that
the social sciences can lay claim to a democratic ideal as its ‘higher good’ and, therefore, its guiding ethos or end… .
Given this end – democracy – social science research is persuaded not for its own sake or for the sake of knowledge in itself. Rather, its pursuit is rooted in the (admittedly diverse) socio-political needs of ‘democracy,’ understood as an ethos or normative as an end in itself.
Because of the importance of this work, he argues, researchers should not be constrained by ethics committees. Instead, he proposes that social scientists be judged by the equivalent of clinical ethics committees (CECs), which Emmerich describes as
forums healthcare professionals can attend in order to discuss any ethical issues they encounter. Committee members are usually healthcare professionals but may also include lawyers, theologians, (bio)ethicists, and patient representatives or lay persons. Debates are relatively informal and if a committee offers a collective opinion – which is not always the case – decisions regarding any action remain the responsibility of those professionals directly involved in the case. CECs therefore provide a forum for debate and, as such, a means to improve the quality of ethical reflection in practice.
Were social scientists trusted to the same degree as these healthcare professionals, they could
justify the ethical aspects of their proposal with reference to the specific disciplinary norms that guide their work as professionals. The subsequent discussion would, of course, offer critique or raise additional issues as necessary. Such committees could, if they saw fit or if it were considered helpful to do so, produce a written comments or recommendations but, in so far as they are justified in doing so, the individual researcher could proceed within the boundaries of their own professional ethics.
I’ve long thought that making ethics review voluntary could force ethics committees to improve the quality of their recommendations. As it stands, committees can use threats to impose their will, so they need not persuade researchers of the value of their suggestions. If stripped of this power, they would need to make suggestions good and clear enough to inspire voluntary compliance. But I’m less sure that such a switch requires or merits the wholesale reframing from research ethics to professional ethics. If your profession is research, aren’t research ethics a form of professional ethics?
I also wonder about Emmerich’s comparison of social science to “the true professions of law, medicine, [and] the clergy.” It strikes me that a key characteristic of these professions is the ability (in theory) of fellow professionals to disbar, debar, or defrock. Social scientists do not have such power. In my essay, “Ethical Pluralism,” in The Ethics Rupture: Exploring Alternatives to Formal Research-Ethics Review, Will C. van den Hoonaard and Ann Hamilton, eds., (University of Toronto Press, 2016), I concluded that greater trust in the scholarly professions would likely require less reliance on threats. Does Emmerich agree?
Gontcharov attacks TCPS2
Gontcharov’s main argument is that Canada’s Tri-Council Policy Statement inappropriately imposes a “positivist understanding of research as a universal standard for all research disciplines.” As a result, he argues
it is unavoidable that some research initiatives based on alternative or mixed methods started to experience challenges in passing ethics review. Since the format of ethics review is tailored to positivist research, “qualitative” researchers try to fit in the required framework – even if it is hardly relevant – when/thus filling out REB forms, identifying risks of harm, answering questions about anonymity and generalizability of data, or designing written consent forms. If they anticipate significant challenges in passing ethics review, they will probably decide against pursuing the project. (26)
Unlike the United States, Canada has given social scientists formal roles in shaping human subjects guidelines. But Gontcharov suggests that quantitative social scientists sold out their less positivist fellows:
The reason why many SSH (social science and humanities) researchers would not object the biomedical framework as a whole, searching for solutions to existing problems from within, is reflective of the overall methodological structure of the social sciences. This structure features a positivist core and antipositivist periphery. From this perspective – the expansion of the positivist framework can be seen as an attempt to colonize the periphery by the social sciences’ methodological core. Accordingly, methodological colonialism is an inner business of the social sciences, rather than an effort of the biomedical sciences to bring them into their orbit. (15)
Gontcharov claims that while the 2010 and 2014 revisions to the TCPS introduced some “undoubtedly progressive” elements, “the biomedical conceptual framework remains largely intact, [so] all initiatives at knowledge production that do not fit the required protocol format continue to be censored or modified by researchers themselves in order to resemble the standard.”
I am puzzled by this claim, since the 2010 revision addressed many of the problems that Gontcharov identifies. For instance, Gontcharov claims that under TCPS “it is assumed that researchers will follow the approved design until research is completed.” But since 2010, TCPS2 has specifically noted that
Although initial research questions may be outlined in the formalized research proposal, REBs should be aware that it is quite common for specific questions (as well as shifts in data sources or discovery of data sources) to emerge only during the research project. Due to the inductive nature of qualitative research and the emergent design approach of the research, some of these elements may evolve as the project progresses. (Article 10.5).
Researchers are free to tinker with their research design without additional review unless “changes of data collection procedures would represent a change in the level of the risk that may affect the welfare of the participants.”
Similarly, Gontcharov complains that
Written consent forms are a feature of REB oversight, which has a demoralizing effect on researchers, since they realize that they can only pass ethics by accommodating the elements that are native to research ethics boards, but potentially foreign to their projects.
Again, TCPS2 addressed this problem in 2010:
In some types of research, and for some groups or individuals, written signed consent may be perceived as an attempt to legalize or formalize the consent process and therefore may be interpreted by the participant as a lack of trust on the part of the researcher. In these cases, oral consent, a verbal agreement or a handshake may be required, rather than signing a consent form. In some cultures, the giving and receiving of gifts symbolizes the establishment of a relationship comparable to consent. (Article 3.12)
As a final example, Gontcharov laments that
REB professionals rely on a hierarchically-structured concept of power, power as dominance, assuming that researchers have power over their human participants. On the other hand, participatory researchers do not operate from within this “power over” perspective, since the context presupposes a more nuanced, multidimensional understanding of power, in which even the very distinction between researches and participants may be blurred or even irrelevant.
In some cases, participants hold equal or greater power in the researcher-participant relationship, such as in community-based and/or organizational research when a collaborative process is used to define and design the research project and questions, or where participants are public figures or hold other positions of power (e.g., research involving economic, social, political or cultural elites). (Chapter 10, General Approach and Methodological Requirements and Practices.)
To be sure, as Nancy Janovicek has written, not all REBs are following the guidance in the revised TCPS. But I am baffled by Gontcharov’s attack on a document that already includes key distinctions between biomedical and qualitative research that he wishes to highlight.