Do the right thing - unite

Social science bodies must stop professional protectionism and draft a common research ethics code, says Ron Iphofen

January 14, 2010

The window" was the metaphor used to describe ethical review in the social sciences at a recent conference of the Association of Research Ethics Committees. Sharon Witherspoon, deputy director at the Nuffield Foundation, suggested that windows illuminate issues missed by researchers. But I am tempted by the "roundabout" metaphor because the research ethics debate centres on the same issues every year.

Some keep it turning by painting regulation as anti-democratic, restrictive of academic freedom and itself unethical. Requirements for confidentiality may prevent the disclosure of malpractice or faults that need remedy. And ethics procedures still result in unreasonable rejections, inconsistencies and delays.

Some fluidity in the debate derives from popular ethical challenges. The sacking of David Nutt as head of the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs and the "Hand of Henry" that robbed Ireland of its chance to compete in the World Cup reveal common concerns. Both are about seeking adequate evidence, policy formation, bringing a "game" into disrepute; and both mean a lot to many people. "Professional fouls" in social science can contaminate the field and lead us to wonder about the status of evidence in policymaking.

But there has been much progress in ethics review. The Department of Health's National Research Ethics Service now has an efficient system supporting quality research. The RESPECT project has established guidelines for professional standards in all European Union-funded social research. So why the roundabout?

One problem has been professional protectionism. Social science bodies set up their own codes, which results in duplication of effort. The Social Policy Association for years advised use of the Social Research Association guidelines, but it now has its own code. The Government's Social Research Unit this summer established internal advisory guidelines - a distillation of those already adopted by the Scottish Executive. The Economic and Social Research Council, despite supporting the RESPECT project, chose to establish its own research ethics framework and to require adherence to it to secure funding - which introduced chaos because most UK universities had no system of ethical regulation.

The problem lay in failing to distinguish between research governance and independent ethical review. This is what gets US institutional review boards (IRBs) a bad name. Risk-averse IRBs refuse reasonable but "risky" projects. Some suggest that this now occurs here as universities seek to keep their professional indemnity cover intact. I once heard a vice-chancellor tell a dean: "You health people ... think these review committees are about ethics ... this has nothing to do with ethics ... it's about management."

The original ESRC research ethics framework noted this distinction but did not tell universities how to deal with it. Litigation about research may be rare in the UK, but as long as professional indemnity is a requirement by funders, no institution will take the chance of not being covered by insurance in case something should go wrong.

Ethics will always be a fluid field. Daily changes in the moral order have consequences for social science research methods, as do new technological forms, which demand methodological innovation. The practicalities of research require forms of ethical pluralism such that while privacy may be vital in one sphere, its suspension may be vital elsewhere. Managing voluntary informed consent will be difficult when studying enormous datasets and novel social networks online.

To get off the roundabout we must stop duplicating effort and unite in consensus about ethics. The Academy of Social Sciences could provide the ideal forum. Under its imprimatur, social scientists could draft guidelines that all could sign up to. There couldn't be a better time since the British Sociological Association and the British Psychological Society are currently, independently, reviewing their ethical codes. We have the expertise, perhaps we all need to be less precious about our own codes and learn to draw the best from each other.

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