Researcher in Aids suicide case wins Exeter ethics dispute

September 24, 1999

Exeter University has admitted mishandling an ethical dispute over a postgraduate student guaranteeing the anonymity of those who had helped people with Aids to kill themselves, writes Steve Farrar.

The row centred on the confidentiality of controversial research by Canadian Russel Ogden, whose PhD on assisted suicides was abandoned amid allegations that he had not been given sufficient support.

Four ethical complaints made by Mr Ogden against the university were upheld wholly or partly by an internal committee of academic inquiry last week. It was also admitted that aspects of his supervision fell short of published guidelines.

Although five further complaints were rejected and his PhD was abandoned, Mr Ogden desc-ribed the judgment as a victory.

The inquiry reported: "We find that the ethical approval of Mr Ogden's PhD research was mishandled and demonstrated serious incompetence and subsequent mismanagement by the department. This put the university's reputation at risk and potentially undermined Mr Ogden's PhD research."

It admitted that it had undertaken a commitment to protect the confidentiality of the participants in his research - some of whom had been involved in assisting with more than one suicide and, in some cases, botched attempts.

Mr Ogden, who had risked running foul of the law by protecting his sources, said the result should persuade Exeter to improve its ethical practice and possibly take a national lead in this area. "The whole issue of research ethics is in its infancy in the UK. If researchers do not get guidance as to their behaviour in the field, it reinforces the arrogance of many towards those who participate in their research and ultimately undermines public faith in the pursuit of science," he said.

A university spokesman said the matter would not rest, adding: "Recommendations will now be made to senate on what lessons have been learned and on policy for the future."

Richard Nicholson, editor of The Bulletin of Medical Ethics, said a national intitiative to issue guidelines on the ethical handling of science was required.

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