Ethics reviewers have moved on from granite-faced bureaucracy

Social media and Covid have forced research committees to become more agile, sophisticated and professional, says James Patterson

June 20, 2021
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Anyone who works in higher education knows that those responsible for research ethics are not universally beloved.

No doubt, the very words “research ethics” conjure up, in some minds, images of granite-faced bureaucrats, obsessed with unyielding rules and micromanagement. Humanities researchers, in particular, have complained that ethics requirements foist upon them a clinical model more suited to health research.

I have worked in a research ethics office for more than a decade and wouldn’t want to dispute that some of the criticisms are valid. Nonetheless, during a turbulent period when we’ve had to deal with the fallout from the financial crash, the rise of populism, Brexit and Covid, research ethics has had to move with the times – and many assumptions about it are now outdated.

Research ethics reviewers have one core purpose: to look out for the interests of research participants who give their time and their data. I like to think that my institution is at the vanguard, but a casual glance at other universities’ websites reveals a great deal of common practice. Many have introduced online systems for ethics applications, obviating the need to destroy more of the rainforest. This has the major benefit of speeding up review processes, and so making them more efficient.

It is also clear that university research ethics has become increasingly professionalised through the hiring of professional staff such as myself. Today, for example, applications tend to be reviewed proportionately, according to their level of risk. An undergraduate surveying shopping brands will probably not need to fill out a monstrously long and convoluted form. They will probably also be spared having their epistemology torn apart by a committee of senior lecturers.

There is a reason why we have seen such professionalisation – universities talk to each other. That is how they figure out how to respond to the pressures of the outside world. For example, the UK Research Integrity Office and the Association of Research Managers and Administrators have jointly published guidance to promote common ethics review standards. This guidance envisages review processes that are “consistent, coherent, and well-informed”. To achieve this, reviewers and policymakers need to be reflective and open to new ideas. It involves dialogue with researchers, rather than top-down imposition.

One area in which research ethics has had to become more sophisticated is in relation to social media. When I started in my job, Twitter was barely even a thing. Data in the public domain was considered fair game, and not subject to the jurisdiction of a research ethics committee. It is true that tweets and Instagram posts are often as publicly available as online news articles. However, social media users are generally private citizens and not subject to the constraints applying to journalists, so it is inappropriate to hold them to the same standards.

As a roller-coaster decade wore on, it became apparent that social media had unacknowledged cultural and political power. Posts that were controversial or ill-considered, or even quite innocent, often had unanticipated consequences. Like the rest of the world, universities had to play catch-up, and there were discussions across the sector about the ethics of social media research.

After some grappling, many universities developed policies that factored in the complexity and the nuance. Some institutions now insist on the ethical review of projects that analyse social media. Others simply encourage researchers to take account of the interests of users. Other important considerations include local data-management policy and security sensitivities, particularly with regards to terrorism. Although a uniform approach has yet to emerge, there is a palpable shared sense that the proverbial genie is out of the bottle and that we need to address the issues systematically.

Another spur to the professionalisation of research ethics has been the need for rapid response. A case in point is the sprawling requirements of General Data Protection Regulation, with their endless implications for consent and data storage. Academics have needed practical advice from those with working knowledge. Similarly, with Covid, research ethics professionals have been required to adapt with haste and agility. On the one hand, the pandemic has cryogenically frozen many face-to-face studies. On the other, it has created a frantic demand for new research, much of it needing urgent review.

I firmly believe there are benefits for researchers in being required to fill out an ethics form. Having tried it myself, I appreciate it is not a wildly enjoyable experience, even if forms are becoming more user-friendly. Yet it encourages researchers to stop and think about their participants. For example, are references to “neoliberal paradigms” suitably age-appropriate on information sheets for children? The application process also gives researchers an opportunity to explain their projects in lay terms. In a higher education landscape over which the dreaded research excellence framework is constantly looming, this might be something of a survival skill.

Over the past 10 years, then, university research ethics processes have developed considerably. The relationship between reviewers and researchers has also changed. Am I suggesting it is now entirely harmonious, even symbiotic? Well, perhaps not quite, but we are getting there. I am confident, however, that research ethics is constantly evolving and here to stay.

James Patterson is research ethics facilitator at King’s College London. The views expressed here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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