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Are Ethics Commitees Ethical?

Date: 23 October 2006 Time: 1.00 - 3.00 pm

Are Ethics Committees Ethical? - Professor Martyn Hammersley

Meeting Room 1, Institute of Advanced Studies

Ethical regulation of social science research is currently increasing, not least as a result of the new ESRC research ethics framework. In this paper I want to raise some questions about the role of ethics committees, both in terms of what they are able to do and what they have the authority or right to do. The practical problems are twofold. First, the literature on research ethics indicates that there are significant disagreements among social scientists about key ethical issues, so that there is very little consensus on which ethics committees can operate. Secondly, researchers' decisions about how to pursue their inquiries involve weighing ethical and other considerations against one another, and this requires detailed knowledge of the contexts concerned, which ethics committees will not have. Even aside from the question of whether ethics committees have the expertise they claim, there is also the issue of what authority their members have, or a university has, in telling individual researchers and research teams how best to do their work. Given that these committees seek prospectively to control how research is and is not done, it can be argued that there is an illegitimate infringement of the autonomy and integrity of researchers here. There are also reasons to expect that this bureaucratic control will worsen the quality of research in the future. The problems here are especially severe for qualitative work. My conclusion is that while ethics committees can play a worthwhile role, this is limited to giving feedback and offering forums for discussion; they are not a legitimate instrument of governance.

Martyn Hammersley is Professor of Educational and Social Research at the Open University. His early research was in the sociology of education. Much of his more recent work has been concerned with the methodological issues surrounding social and educational enquiry. One of his preoccupations has been the relationship between research and policymaking/practice, particularly in the context of 'evidence-based practice' and 'systematic reviews'. His most recent books are: Taking Sides in Social Research (Routledge, 2000); and Educational Research, Policymaking and Practice (Paul Chapman, 2002). He is currently working on the issue of research ethics.


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Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
Lancaster University
Lancaster LA1 4YD
United Kingdom

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