Will the infamous masturbation paper increase ethical oversight?

Many reacted to Karl Andersson’s autoethnography on cartoon child porn by asking how it could have been allowed to go ahead. But amid doubts about who it harmed and ongoing concerns about research bureaucracy, many are wary of a further ramping-up of ethics procedures. Jack Grove reports

October 27, 2022
Montage of red cartoon eyes watching a crowd of people to illustrate will the maturation furore increase ethical oversight
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This summer, a journal paper by a Swedish PhD student written in Germany about Japanese comics became an unusual problem for British academia. Karl Andersson, a first-year doctoral student at the University of Manchester, may have thought his colourful musings on three months spent masturbating to sexualised manga images of young boys pushed forward scholarship, but few agreed, either inside academia or outside it.

Online outrage over his decision to use “masturbation as an ethnographic method in research”, as his paper puts it, was just the start.  Amid disbelief that no one at Manchester or the respected Sage journal Qualitative Research had apparently seen anything problematic in the manuscript, the paper was quickly retracted. The journal editors attributed their change of heart to “ethical issues surrounding the conception and design” of the research. Specifically, they were concerned that the study “legitimises sexual activity involving graphic illustrated images of children and young people”, which has “the potential to cause significant harm”. Andersson himself was suspended by Manchester as an internal investigation was launched. The police are now considering whether he held the pornographic cartoons, known as shota, in the UK, where they are banned.

“Genuinely disgusting” was the verdict of Robert Halfon, chair of the House of Commons’ education committee, as he and other MPs grilled Manchester vice-president for social responsibility Nalin Thakkar in September, during a one-off evidence session on “free speech and research content in English universities” that was held in response to the Andersson case. The apologetic professor admitted that the affair had exposed a “blind spot” in Manchester’s vetting of controversial research.

From the utility of social science research – particularly more experimental, postmodern forms – to PhD admissions processes (Andersson was funded directly by Manchester despite a controversial history of running a magazine in Sweden that was criticised by child protection activists for “sexualising children”), the episode has raised some uncomfortable questions for UK research. But the absence of any mention of ethical approval within Andersson’s paper is the most glaring issue, says Michelle Shipworth, associate professor in energy and social science at UCL, where she leads her department’s ethics board and sits on its institution-wide research ethics committee.

“It’s a wake-up call for research ethics review,” she continues. While Manchester may be off the hook as the unusual fieldwork was conducted prior to Andersson’s enrolment, the journal, whose six editors are based at Cardiff University, should face scrutiny, she says.

In their retraction notice, the editors say they “have concluded that there was a lack of clarity and hence ethical scrutiny at the time of the initial submission”. Andersson’s paper was actually published as a “note” rather than a full paper, and the editors explain that “while the Journal has systems in place to flag ethical concerns raised by article submissions prior to review, those same systems do not fully extend to note submissions”, and the peer reviewers “did not raise ethical concerns”. 

But Shipworth remains puzzled. Given that Andersson’s research focused on masturbation, shota comics and autoethnography – each of which could be contentious – ethical alarm bells should have been ringing, she continues. “Researchers should tackle problematic topics – and PhD studies often do. But you would expect a reviewer to raise an eyebrow, at the very least, when they see three problematic subjects in the same paper.”

Yet some worry that the furious denunciations of Manchester on social media could result in ethics review committees becoming more cautious in their deliberations. In practice, that could mean lumbering scholars with lengthy lists of queries or concerns that may hold up or block research, particularly if it covers sensitive or controversial topics.

“Ethics approval can be onerous, but doesn’t have to be,” says Ron Iphofen, an independent research consultant, who has advised the European Commission on its research ethics frameworks. Beyond pointing out potential harm to research participants, ethics review can strengthen studies by forcing authors to imagine “what happens if?”, giving them time to prepare for any complaints or queries that might arise, says Iphofen.

Montage of warrior illustration with many boxes behind
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However, he disapproves of ethics review boards’ increasing tendency also to consider governance and oversight issues, such as health and safety, risk or reputation management and corporate liability. And nor should ethics boards have the final say on whether research goes ahead, Iphofen believes.

“[The reviewers] can say, ‘There are a lot of ethical challenges here’, but the final decision should be a governance one,” he says. “If you conflate them, there is no comeback for the researcher if they’re rejected, or for the funder if something goes wrong.”

One example of an ethics panel apparently vetoing research for extraneous reasons occurred in 2017, when Bath Spa University postgraduate James Caspian was blocked from pursuing a project on transgender reversal after an ethics committee stated that it “sees no point in causing unnecessary offence”. It added that “engaging in a potentially ‘politically incorrect’ piece of research carries a risk to the university” of inciting a social media storm.

Another issue that some researchers have with ethics committees is that institutional judgements of likely harm to subjects and participants are not always credible. That is certainly the sentiment of historian Andrew Lownie, who spent almost 10 years fighting for access to the private diaries and letters of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, the last viceroy of India. The diaries were bought for the nation from the Mountbatten family for £2.8 million in 2010, using funds from the lottery and Hampshire County Council, and are held at the University of Southampton. Since they had already been cited in previous biographies of Mountbatten – as well as of his wife, Edwina, who had an affair with India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru – Lownie was shocked when he was told he would not be allowed to consult them while researching his own biography, The Mountbattens: Their Lives and Loves.

It is unclear whether Southampton’s ethics committee was involved in the decision, and it may be that the influence of the Cabinet Office was the major driver of the university's stance. Either way, Southampton resisted multiple freedom of information requests and interventions from the Information Commissioner’s Office on the grounds that the letters contained sensitive material that could damage international relations. Threatened with contempt of court proceedings, the university did ultimately post 99.9 per cent of the papers on the internet without notice, but redactions remained. Lownie finally succeeded in overturning those at a court hearing last November, which was ruled on in July.

“The material that they had kept closed for a decade and fought so hard to prevent being made publicly available proved to be entirely innocuous,” Lownie tells Times Higher Education. “If these diaries had gone to an American university, they would have been released 10 years ago.” The retractions were “a face-saving exercise”, he adds. “Would a reference to coming to tea in 1920 really represent a breach of national security?”

He believes the real reason for Southampton’s intransigence was fear of reputational damage to the Royal Family.

Whatever the truth in that particular case, ethics committees’ anxiety about causing any harm to research subjects – however minor, and even decades later – is a growing problem, believes Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, who recently found himself barred by the Wellcome Trust from accessing materials which he deposited in its library almost 40 years ago. While the project on child protection practices in the late 1970s and early 1980s is undeniably sensitive given the emergence of abuse scandals from the period, 80 per cent of the archive involves interviews with healthcare and social care workers, most of whom have long retired, explains Dingwall.

“I heard there was a fishing expedition by a law firm to access the files, so they closed the archive for 100 years,” he explains. “Archives must be cautious, but this was a huge project funded by the Economics and Social Research Council, which required three or four academics working flat out for four years. I’m mindful that you cannot just, in effect, put this stuff through the shredder.”

Erring on the side of caution may seem a good ethical policy, but this may, in itself, be unethical if research fails to happen as a result, he continues. Worse still, it may leave the field clear for those with fewer scruples about approaching the subject in a less than dispassionate way, he adds. “One of the weaknesses of social sciences academics – unlike, say, life scientists – is they have lots of ‘strong rivals’, as the late Phil Strong explained, who can comment on their subjects. Journalists, novelists, playwrights – there is a whole industry ready to comment on society and culture. If you over-regulate on ethics, the space taken by the voice of the academic will be filled by others,” says Dingwall.

In this regard, academia should be wary of overreacting to the uproar over Andersson’s paper, lest academics should choose to avoid controversial subjects in future, he adds. “The paper is certainly tasteless and there are many problematic things about it, but let’s not pretend this paper is an ethics issue,” says Dingwall, citing the lack of harm caused to others by the research. “You may have a view – as the institution does – on whether the research damaged Manchester, and you can debate that, but this is different to ethics which, traditionally, is focused on the protection of human subjects.”

For some academics, the move towards more onerous ethics review may be making researchers less candid about the risks posed by their research. “The more you reveal to ethics boards, the more concerns will be raised by panels. It may lead researchers not to be as upfront as they could be because they won’t get approved,” reflects Randol Contreras, associate professor of media and cultural studies at University of California, Riverside, whose current research sees him interview Mexican Maravilla drug gang members in Los Angeles.

Montage illustration pens dripping red ink over gang members from a clique near downtown Los Angeles
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Female researchers may be especially reluctant to outline the ethical or risk factors given the extra dangers of sexual harassment that they may face, Contreras adds: “Women who do ethnography will often find themselves in high-risk situations – visiting foreign countries or travelling alone – so if you start putting all these potential dangers in your IRB [institutional review board] application, you might not get permission.”

That said, Contreras is intensely conscious of how ethics play out in his own research, decisions regarding which can be a life-or-death matter for him or his subjects. “Nearly every gang member I interview will say ‘You can use my real name’ as they don’t realise the dangers – something they say could tip someone off as this is a very insular world, filled by youths willing to do violence to gain status,” says Contreras. But anonymisation of gang members – including the removal of all descriptive or geographical features, as was requested by a senior academic – would detract from the authenticity and usefulness of the research, he explains. “I don’t want to write a book that is very general about something that occurred in ‘New City’. I am studying east LA, which has a very different gang dynamic to San Diego or New York. Geography does matter and you have to give the reader this information to understand these Maravilla gangs,” says Contreras, who adds that some interviewees only engage on the understanding that a recognisable picture of their lives emerges from the research.

Despite his criticisms of lengthy ethics approval, Contreras recognises that there has sometimes been a blasé attitude towards ethics within his discipline of urban ethnography. For instance, the acclaimed 2014 book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City by Alice Goffman, based on six years following young black men in Philadelphia and their regular interactions with police, illustrated the ethical “naivety” of middle-class researchers entering crime-ridden neighbourhoods, he says. While the Princeton PhD student’s research was compelling, scholars were right to criticise Goffman’s decision to drive an interviewee around the city in search of the killer of a mutual friend, which could have seen her become an accessory to murder.

“It shows a sense of privilege, not just to do this, but also to write about it so openly,” says Contreras. “Given my position, as a Dominican man from this type of neighbourhood, I know I could never get away with [doing what Goffman did], let alone writing about it.” In his own research, he has always impressed upon interviewees that he doesn’t want to hear about murders or planned crimes that could potentially cause him legal problems.

Some might imagine that those working in life sciences might have a clearer sense of how to negotiate ethical challenges, given the decades of ethics regulation and the clearer sense of what constitutes harm. The ethics around animal testing are indeed “pretty formulaic”, confirms Jennifer Schnellmann, associate professor in pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Arizona. However, it is a different matter when it comes to human subjects, she adds.

Even requests to conduct non-controversial research can become bogged down by lengthy debates among panels, explains Schnellmann. “Everyone feels they have to say something as they want to be sure they’re covering their own behind,” she says, adding that this IRB approval process saw her postpone a straightforward student questionnaire on a non-controversial topic for six months. “I doubt the research will happen any more,” she says.

Clinical trials do, of course, raise important ethical questions of consent and potential harm that cannot be ignored, says Schnellmann, citing the death of Jesse Gelsinger, a healthy 18-year-old, in a gene therapy trial at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999 as a relatively recent learning moment for university research ethics. Nonetheless, it is also worth considering whether ethics bureaucracy is “getting too big, especially for smaller universities”, she says. “On consent, we have to consider whether giving someone $100 is coercive or not, while forms are written so a sixth-grader could understand them but are also scrutinised,” says Schnellmann. “At some point, you have to accept that if you are doing human-subject research, it is experimental. You can try to cover everything, but you are not going to stop mistakes being made – and more laws on this will not make things safer.”

That frustration with ethics reviewers is not shared by all, however. “These are researchers’ colleagues – and researchers themselves. The last thing they want to do is inhibit or block impactful research,” says Edward Dove, lecturer in health law and regulation at the University of Edinburgh, whose recent study of research ethics committees in Scottish universities found that they were generally working well. “Their purpose is to ensure research is ethical but also goes ahead. They are like an amber light, saying ‘proceed with caution’,” he reflects.

“Ethics committees are relatively new creatures in UK universities,” continues Dove. Most institutions only adopted panels for science-based subjects from about 2000, while the launch of Universities UK’s research integrity concordat in 2012, now in its second iteration, led to the creation of many more ethics panels in other subjects, he explains. However, this has led to some “idiosyncrasies” in the way ethics review is approached across different universities, Dove concedes, while the “mission creep” of considering legal and data protection matters is a concern for some panellists.

For some, the introduction of ethics boards across all subjects and at all levels of research (undergraduates are also asked to complete assessments) may represent overkill. However, UCL’s Shipworth disagrees. “I don’t have any time for those who get all huffy when claiming ethics review has no place in art history or computer science research,” she says. Even the most routine research project can come unstuck if ethics procedures are glossed over, she explains. “We had a master’s student who wanted people in a park to answer some questions – he had no mechanism to screen out children from the study, and it also emerged his questions covered areas like mental health and people’s sex lives – you can imagine the problems this might have caused if it hadn’t been picked up,” she adds.

And while light-touch review is preferable, combining the ethics processes with health and safety or other concerns may even help researchers, she adds. “It can reduce their paperwork – I’m conscious that sending them off into the checklists of a health and safety system seemingly designed to minimise the risk of chemical explosions isn’t always helpful,” she adds.

It is clear that ethics committees face something of a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” scenario. One irony of the Andersson controversy is that when the furore broke, his department’s ethics review board had already turned down his proposed doctoral project, which would have involved interviewing other readers of shota comics.

Thakker, Manchester’s vice-president, told the select committee that such refusals were “extremely rare”. The Andersson furore may entail that, in future, they become rather less so.

The Belfast Project: Evading the ethical big guns

In April 2014, the arrest and questioning of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams over the 1972 murder of supposed informant Jean McConville by the Provisional IRA led to late-night calls between the UK and Irish prime ministers over fears for the Northern Ireland peace process.

Adams’ four-day detention over the abduction and killing of the 37-year-old mother of 10, whose body was not found until 2003, also sent shock waves through the world of university research ethics because it was based on material taken directly from an oral history project on the Troubles run by Boston College.

Initiated shortly after the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland in 1998, the Belfast Project was a bold effort to collect the testimony of ex-paramilitaries on both sides, Republican and Unionist, including their accounts of murders, bombings and other atrocities, before they were lost forever.

“There was an urgency to get these interviews – we were talking to people who had started in the IRA almost 30 years earlier, so memories were fading and people were dying,” explains Ed Moloney, an award-winning Irish journalist who led the project.

Given that the candid confessions were likely to include accounts of murders, bombings and other atrocities – some unsolved – interviewees were promised that their transcripts would not be released until after their deaths. But when the existence of the “Boston tapes” emerged in 2008, the college was subpoenaed by the US Justice Department, working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, to hand over the interviews in 2011.

After its legal challenges failed, the college eventually handed over the files, resulting in the arrest of Adams, as well as former IRA volunteer Ivor Bell. The 82-year-old was later cleared of McConville’s murder in 2019, after a judge ruled the tapes were unreliable and could not be used in court.

The Belfast Project has been widely condemned for misleading research participants. It was inevitable, critics say, that police would seek to obtain the tapes – and this would have been anticipated if normal ethics screening via Boston College’s official channels had taken place.

To have submitted the project to such screening, however, would have presented other dangers because the very existence of the project had to remain secret, says Moloney. “Belfast is a very small city and its lawyers cannot keep a secret for 10 minutes, so we had to be very prudent about leaks. If the IRA had found out what we were doing, our interviewers would have been shot.”

Moloney’s choice of interviewer has also been criticised. Anthony McIntyre, known as Mackers, was a former IRA volunteer who served 18 years for murder before completing a PhD at Queen’s University Belfast. Adams said McIntyre and other former IRA members interviewed for the project were part of a republican dissident campaign to bring him down. But Moloney is unrepentant. “Mackers was trusted by these people and he knew what questions to ask,” he says. “Without someone like him, the project wouldn’t have worked.”

Huge efforts were made to protect the identity of interviewees, to the extent that Moloney himself doesn’t know “the names of 90 per cent of them. We were always worried about falling foul of US law, but we put our trust in Boston College – we were naive in that respect.”

The bigger ethical question raised by the episode is who gets to dictate history, Moloney continues. “It was in the interests of many people that this research didn’t happen. Intelligence agencies, in particular, did not want people coming out to tell these stories,” he says.

“Sadly, this [episode] killed off this kind of research entirely. If there is going to be a major exercise chronicling this time, it will be done by the powers that be, rather than mavericks like myself.”

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