‘Lighter social science regulation requires integrity’

Suggested changes to ‘common rule’ raise issues on research with human subjects

January 16, 2014

Transatlantic moves to lighten the burden of regulation on social scientists should be accompanied by greater emphasis on professional integrity, two senior figures have said.

The comments came in the wake of last week’s publication by the US National Research Council of suggested amendments to the so-called “common rule” that governs US research with human subjects.

The suggestions include a tighter definition of research with human subjects that would exclude the use of existing, publicly available personal data where the researcher had no direct interaction with the subjects.

The amended regulations – which cover both social and biomedical research – would also “excuse” from ethical review those projects that involve only minimal “informational” risk, which could be mitigated by, for example, a data security plan. This would include the use of publicly familiar methodologies such as educational tests or surveys.

Review of projects where the risk of harm “does not exceed that which is ordinarily encountered in daily life or in routine medical, psychological or educational examinations” would be “expedited” and reviewed within two weeks.

Felice Levine, executive director of the American Educational Research Association and a member of the committee that proposed the changes, told the Academy of Social Sciences’ conference on research ethics last week that she hoped the reforms and putting greater emphasis on the integrity of researchers would “bring to [the] fore the significance of ethical considerations” and “give voice to them”.

Robert Dingwall, an independent researcher, is part of an Academy of Social Sciences working group that has drafted principles for lighter-touch regulation of UK social science. He also urged a move away from a regulatory system “built on mistrust and suspicion” and a sense that “researchers will do nasty things to people unless you stop them”.

But he said a “quid pro quo” of such moves was for learned societies to make “stronger statements” about the importance of researcher integrity.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com

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