Problematic areas and critiques
It has been noted elsewhere in this web-resource that two social science research paradigms raise particular problems with regard to structured ethical review by RECs:
- In Participant Research work over anticipation of the structure of the research is contrary to the spirit of the approach. For the PR practitioner research is ‘emergent’, rather than fully structured in advance. This has raised particular concerns with regard to Informed Consent, which may be negotiated in an ongoing way rather than formally agreed. (See Participant Research: Research Ethiccs Committees)
- Ethnography emphasizing reflexivity gives rise to similar problems with regard to foreseeing exactly how research and relationships with those researched will develop. The methodology is at odds with the structured requirement of RECs. (See Global Context: Ethics, Politics and the Reflexive Researcher)
The REC approach to ethical review is especially problematic for these two research paradigms. Arguments that the approach to ethical review is unsuited to some forms of research, together with more broadly-based critiques, are set out below.
Whilst ethical review processes have been designed to safeguard the research participant and protect the interests, needs and safety of researchers who are trying to undertake research of good quality, as the following quote infers, such processes can, of themselves, create ethical dilemmas.
“formulaic rules and practices are vulnerable to nurturing unethical and amoral behaviours whereby researchers pay lip service to the ethics approval process knowing they have committed to processes that are conceptually flawed or impossible to implement….destroying the very thing it seeks to create: ethical research” (Halse and Honey 2005: 2157)
As a consequence, some aspects of ethical review processes have been subject to academic critique on several grounds:
- RECs have an unrealistic, precautionary, worst-case scenario approach which is damaging to research
- The medical REC model is inappropriate to the social science context
- RECs and their ethical frameworks are underpinned by a positivist model of research
- the literature on research ethics indicates that there are significant disagreements among social scientists about key ethical issues
- 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
- the bureaucratic framework of RECs is likely to be especially problematic for qualitative work
- In effect RECs encourage “just following the rules” rather than acting ethically
It is important to note that such critiques represent particular viewpoints and are raised here as matters for thought and further discussion.
(1) RECs have an unrealistic, precautionary, worst-case scenario approach which is damaging to research
This [ESRC] framework lays out a set of ‘principles’, which are actually formulated as injunctions
(Martyn Hammerley p.4)
Some see the ESRC approach as rigid and prescriptive and variously as overemphasising a “risk society” (Beck 1994), seeking to engage in the “risk management of everything” (Power 2004) and based in a “neo liberal managerialism” (Davies and Petersen 2005). Unrealistic “pronouncements about the “risk” of research projects are more akin to a subjective imaging of potential scenarios unconstrained by empirical evidence” (Haggerty 2005: 402). It has been suggested that fear of litigation has been a primary determinant. Martyn Hammerley writes that
the motivation behind setting up ethics committees is not just a concern with protecting the public from unethical researcher behaviour but also with protecting organisations, not just universities but also funders, from legal action by anyone who believes that they have been mistreated.
(Martyn Hammerley p.6)
(2) The medical REC model is inappropriate to the social science context
It is argued that it has been a mistake to model academic social science RECs on the pre-existing tradition of medical RECs, because the two situations are not equivalent in terms of potential harm to participants. Martyn Hammersley writes:
Despite disclaimers, the tendency within the ESRC framework document, as in the orientation of most ethics committees, is to rely on a medical and psychological model in which informed consent is crucial. […] Yet, the level of harm involved in most social research, from most points of view, is comparatively low. Despite this, like some of the ethical codes that preceded it, the ESRC framework treats fully informed consent as a requirement except in ‘very specific and exceptional research contexts’ (ESRC 2005:1). […] outside of the laboratory, informed consent becomes a much less straightforward matter and one over which the researcher has quite limited control.
(Martyn Hammerley p.5)
In Hammersley’s view RECs to a large extent “combine the functions of legislature, judiciary, and police force” and that the requirement for researchers to “clear their future behaviour with the authorities before engaging in it” constitutes an unreasonable and
unusually tight form of regulation, one that may be appropriate where the practices involved could cause very serious harm, for example to the health of patients. It does not seem appropriate where the risk of great harm (comparatively speaking) is extremely small.
(Martyn Hammerley p.7)
Similar complaints about inappropriate heavy-handedness are made in the USA, where the Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) established by the ‘National Research Act’ (1974) apply to both medical research and social science.
(3a) the literature on research ethics indicates that there are significant disagreements among social scientists about key ethical issues
… the very extensive published literature on research ethics shows that there have long been serious disagreements about ethical issues: about what it is and is not legitimate for researchers to do in particular sorts of circumstance, and perhaps even about which ethical considerations should normally take primacy.
The ESRC REF acknowledges that there are significant methodological and epistemological differences within social science:
Research paradigms differ between disciplines and a ‘one size fits all’ approach is not always appropriate.
ESRC REC 1.7.2 p12
However, some see the ESRC approach as underpinned by a positivist model, which produces codes ill suited for social science research and does not fully consider power and politics in research. For some, social science research is understood as inherently value-laden, political, transformative, and ethically and politically accountable to those researched. The universalist approach to ethics, which is seen as inherent in the ESRC’s approach, is contrasted with the particularistic, context-specific and radically negotiated approaches characteristic of feminist and communitarian research traditions. For some researchers political responsibility is imperative. Harming the powerful may, for instance, be seen as highly ethical and the ethics of scrutiny may take precedence over the ethics of privacy.
The ESRC framework document claims to ‘reflect […] current good practice’ (ESRC 2005:1). Yet, how can the guidelines achieve this when there exist such sharp disagreements?
(3b) 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
The ESRC REF document states
The knowledge and expectations that members of RECs bring to the ethical review of research proposals are fundamental to the way they review proposals. This is particularly clear in qualitative research where it may be impossible or undesirable to meet the standard requirements for ethical approval, for example, to obtain signed consent forms from each respondent.
ESRC REC 1.9.4 p13
However, some are sceptical as to whether it is likely that REC members will have the necessary context-specific understanding. Martyn Hammersley writes:
… in what sense will [REC members] be representative of the research community that is relevant to any specific study? Generally speaking, this will not be the case
… ethical guidelines must always be interpreted in context. Even where we agree that a certain universal ethical principle applies, we are still likely to make differential judgments about what it implies in a particular case […] we must take account of context in our judgments, in the course of balancing various ethical considerations against one another, and against other issues.
… how are ethics committees to gain the sort of contextual knowledge about each research project required here?
and concludes that
“The unavailability of [the necessary] expertise undermines the authority of those committees.”
(3c) the bureaucratic framework of RECs is likely to be especially problematic for qualitative work
The ESRC framework document states:
Where a study design is emergent, the REC should agree procedures for continuing ethical review (for example through a Project Advisory Group) with the researchers as a condition of approval.
(ESRC REC 1.11.2 p15)
The necessity for qualitative researchers to engage in ongoing cycles of ethical review is seen as compounding the difficulties inherent in conducting work such as participant research or reflexive ethnography and as amounting to “doing research by committee” (Hammersley, p.7).
4) In effect RECs encourage “just following the rules” rather than acting ethically
It is arguable that the emphasis on a structured ethical review process will be counterproductive because ethical responsibility will be felt to have shifted to the REC and the researcher is ‘ethically disempowered’.
… there may be a tendency for such reductions in responsibility to leave individual researchers or research teams in a position where they feel less obligation to act in ways that they regard as ethical, since after all they no longer have control over their own research, the ethics committee has taken responsibility for the ethicality of their research design. Indeed, on occasion, they may not be able to act in ways that they regard as ethically appropriate because of constraints laid down by the committee.
To maintain the ethical agency of the researcher, an alternative approach would be for RECs to give non-binding advice and to “serve as forums in which ethical principles and cases could be discussed” (Hammersley, p7). In this way it would be possible to constitute ethics as an ongoing process of critical reflection throughout the research. Moreover, it could facilitate consideration of the embedded and embodied particularity of participants, accommodation of multiple epistemologies, and consideration of power relations throughout the whole research process and afterwards.