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.”

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