Research v regulation: is there another way?

Mark Israel’s book Research Ethics and Integrity for Social Science looks at need for nuance in applying guidelines and protocols

December 4, 2014

What has led to “adversarial relationships” between social scientists and the regulatory regimes they operate within – and how can they be made more harmonious?

These are key themes in Research Ethics and Integrity for Social Scientists: Beyond Regulatory Compliance by Mark Israel, Winthrop professor of law and criminology at the University of Western Australia.

A chapter on “informed consent”, for example, unpacks the complexities of a seemingly simple concept. Can senior managers in a company (or gang leaders) give legitimate, non-coercive consent on behalf of subordinates for them to take part in a research project? Can it be “unwise or tactless” to insist that drug users or crooks sign a consent form? How can a researcher explain her plans to disseminate her results online to “a remote preliterate community in the Philippines”? Is it permissible to join an online self-help group to find out more about anorexia? Can covert research or manipulative methods – “deception by lying, withholding information or misleading exaggeration” – be justified by the greater good of exposing injustice, state violence or corporate misconduct?

Similar complexities arise with regard to issues of confidentiality, avoiding harm/doing good, integrity and misconduct, and the range of relationships with participants, colleagues and even their own families that researchers inevitably get involved in. Yet in many cases they are required to abide by relatively inflexible ethical protocols, often developed with biomedical research in mind, that take little account of different circumstances.

“The default model for most research,” says Professor Israel, “is assumed to be hypothetico-deductive. You have a hypothesis, you put it to a particular kind of protocol and it’s quantitative. When you come up against a whole slew of traditions in the social sciences, it just doesn’t work.”

One of the results has been a decline in techniques such as covert research and “snowball sampling”, based on personal contacts and referrals, which are often unpopular with ethics committees. Yet Professor Israel, who has “worked with colleagues in Australia at local and national levels to try and roll back the adversarial culture that has developed around ethics review”, believes there are ways out of this impasse. Researchers need to develop a better philosophical understanding of ethical issues and the cultural dimensions of notions such as “consent”. He accepts that “we need a more constructive review and regulatory environment”, but also believes it is too easy to blame reviewers and regulators. “We need to have a process of review that encourages dialogue rather than defending tick-a-box rubber-stamping and duelling emails,” he said.

In the UK, “the Economic and Social Research Council needs to work much more closely with the professional associations”, he adds. “The professional associations need to tool up over several years so that they’ve got empirical evidence to support their claims when the framework for research ethics is next reviewed in the UK. We can also exchange good practice from other jurisdictions to tell regulators and reviewers that the sky won’t fall in if they make changes.”

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

International Student Support Assistant YORK ST JOHN UNIVERSITY
Senior Lecturer: Architecture (Cultural Content) NORWICH UNIVERSITY OF THE ARTS
Head of Department of Physics ZHEJIANG UNIVERSITY

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest