Research standards must be maintained

Rather than the academy relaxing its ethical standards, perhaps areas of the media need to raise their game, argues Keith Richards

May 2, 2013

Source: Miles Cole

I have not yet read Julian Barnes’ latest book, Levels of Life, but know something about it from the reviews. The authors of two such reviews tell us that Pat Kavanagh - Barnes’ late wife, for whom the author grieves throughout the book - was their literary agent for 30 years. As a research excellence framework panel chair, it puzzles me that a request to write a review could be accepted by those with such close connections to the author and his wife. In the REF, reporting and recording procedures are elaborate, but in academic peer review more generally, we are regularly enjoined to avoid conflicts of interest. These reviews could be exceptions: perhaps the book warrants comment from a writer with personal knowledge, and so both reviewers expose their conflict; one even states “it is hard for me to be objective”. Nevertheless, the example does raise questions about the ethics of knowingly overriding an obvious conflict of interest.

Meanwhile, the BBC is once again the subject of controversy. Its Panorama team inveigled its way into a study tour of North Korea by London School of Economics students to film in this secretive, failing state. The LSE is incensed because academic institutions bear a duty of care to students, even though most are beyond the age of majority. The trip involved LSE students, which implies that duty, even if they organised it themselves. Students in my department scatter around the world to undertake dissertation fieldwork and we have elaborate risk-assessment procedures to deal with our responsibility towards them. If something had gone wrong in North Korea, the LSE could have found itself legally and financially exposed. An LSE risk assessment would probably have involved robust negotiation with the BBC, and the insurance costs alone might have prohibited the subterfuge.

The ethical position of the Panorama team relative to the group it exploited is questionable, and it is interesting to compare these cases from the news media with academic practice. How would Panorama have handled an Economic and Social Research Council ethical assessment given the people involved, the need for informed consent and the requirement to obtain the permission of the students’ “gatekeeper” (the LSE)?

Both examples involve personal and professional ethics: individual responsibility and integrity, and the ethical prosecution of professional activities. Academic research involving human participants must secure respect for their privacy, confidentiality and vulnerability; provide for free and informed consent; and be open about its purpose.

The two cases also throw light on a recent Times Higher Education article, “Ethics rethink for social sciences” (News, 14 March). It reported on social scientists debating what they perceived to be stringent ethical requirements arising from the application to their discipline “of frameworks developed for biomedicine”, which was leading to “overregulation”. One participant stated: “You can imagine how outraged journalists would feel if they had to pre-check with a committee that their questions would not upset someone.” This seems a risky attitude, since if personal and professional ethics are correlated, weakening the one risks undermining the other - in either direction. Effort must be invested in attending to any duty of care, and academic research should not justify short cuts using media defences such as short-term deadlines.

Rather than social science drop its standards, perhaps areas of the media need to raise their game. My experience of research ethics review differs markedly from those contributing to the discussion reported in THE. This may be because in my institution, ethical review is initially conducted locally, close to the disciplinary context, with referral to university committees only in contentious cases. Departmental review normally iterates with those whose proposals are under review, and suggests revisions to minimise ethical concerns. This iteration recognises and accommodates the multiple, competing ethical issues encountered in research. The net effect is to make research not only ethically acceptable but also of higher quality, because a greater subtlety of approach is fostered and trust between subjects and researchers is enhanced. Particularly with graduate students, this review process can be a positive element of research training and preparation. Rather than complain that “overregulation of research ethics [has] led social scientists to see it as a mere tick-box exercise”, perhaps the naysayers should harry their own institutions into overhauling the implementation of research ethics review.

If ethical review is a positive, helpful practice leading to improved training of social science researchers and better research, it would be counterproductive to undermine it. If journalists might be outraged, perhaps academics could persuade them that it could improve their work, too. The “public interest” defence of journalistic freedom is looking pretty tired post-Leveson, and what does it mean anyway? Too often it is an ill-defined smokescreen for commercial or similar benefits; an “end- justifies-the-means” argument (“it was in the public interest; no one was hurt”). Academics should stand firm against yet another erosion: that of the freedom to maintain standards. Our teaching function has been sacrificed to the marketplace; let us at least defend intellectually rigorous, carefully conducted, ethically informed research.

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