Draft guidelines on research ethics are 'dangerous' for social policy

Academics say that proposed rules will harm core activities in the field. Rebecca Attwood reports

June 12, 2008

Proposed guidelines for social policy research are "deeply, disturbingly misconceived", academics in the field have claimed.

The Social Policy Association has published a set of draft guidelines on research ethics to help its members deal with the ethical issues that they may face when conducting research.

But critics say that in their current form the guidelines could block research in key areas and fail to recognise fundamental aspects of social policy research.

Paul Spicker, professor of public policy at The Robert Gordon University, said the guidelines were "dangerous" and had to go back to the drawing board.

"The principles that have been included in the draft code are ill-considered and inappropriate," he commented in an SPA-run online forum.

He told Times Higher Education that important principles had been excluded.

The guidelines say that researchers have a duty to ensure that participants are not exposed to harm, a principle taken from the Nuremberg code - a set of research principles set out in 1947 and designed to protect the rights of human research subjects in response to Nazi experimentation on humans.

The SPA guidelines also say that participation should, where possible, be based on freely given informed consent and that any information provided should be treated as confidential.

But Professor Spicker said that because it was the job of social policy researchers to assess service agencies and people working in the public sphere, it was sometimes unavoidable that people's jobs and reputations were put at risk.

Those in the public sphere were subject to public scrutiny and must be publicly accountable. They did not necessarily have the right to withhold information, Professor Spicker said, adding that he had often used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain research information.

"Any professional code will have implications for deliberations by research ethics committees, and through them for the operation of research in practice," he said. "As it stands, this code runs the risk of discrediting and disqualifying many of the core activities in social policy."

Carole Truman, professor of health and community studies at the University of Bolton, said she shared Professor Spicker's concerns.

"It seems a great shame and missed opportunity that the SPA guidelines seem to reflect more the concerns of the biomedical disciplines than those of the social sciences," she commented in the forum.

Saul Becker, professor of social policy and social care at the University of Nottingham and chair of the SPA, said: "We are not devising a code, we are devising guidelines. A code usually implies that people need to stick to it or there could be sanctions. That is certainly not what the SPA is doing. We are trying to give our members some good guidelines or guidance on ethically sound approaches to research. This is a first draft we are sharing with members and opening up for consultation.

"Three or four people have commented, suggesting that it needs changing - which is exactly what a consultation is about."


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