Julie Kent, Emma
Williamson, Trudy Goodenough and Richard
Ashcroft (2002) 'Social Science Gets the Ethics
Treatment: Research governance and ethical review'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 7, no. 4, <http://www.socresonline.org.uk/7/4/williamson.html>
To cite articles published in Sociological Research Online, please reference the above information and include paragraph numbers if necessary
Received: 20/5/2002 Accepted: 25/11/2002 Published: 30/11/2002
Emerging forms of peer review should all be seen as necessary - but necessarily partial - elements of a broader socio-technical response. The challenge is to achieve a flexible and responsive set of institutional structures for the development and scrutiny of expert knowledges of different kinds (Irwin, 1995 pp.173).
"makes clear that self-policing through the traditional method of 'scientific dialogue' is not a realistic option once scientific misconduct has become a major issue of public concern. Not only does it fail to satisfy public and political demands for accountability, it can be deeply unpopular among accused scientists themselves if there is a lack of due process" (Grayson 1995:59).
Most epidemiological research carries no risk to participants (Olsen, Bolumar, et al. 1999:1025).
In order to ensure that the guidelines for research ethics are followed in practice, it is essential to institute adequate procedures for protocols to be assessed by properly constituted committees (Campbell, 1997, pp.174)
You must apply to an NHS REC when your research involves:
- NHS patients, i.e. those subjects recruited by virtue of their past or present treatment by the NHS including those treated under contract with the private sector.
- People identified through their capacity as relatives of or carers for NHS patients
- Foetal material and in vitro fertilisation involving NHS patients.
- The recently dead in NHS premises.
- Access to records of past and present NHS patients.
- The use of, or potential access to, NHS premises or facilities (including NHS staff).
- (COREC Webpage).
There are numerous reports in the literature describing the problems encountered by epidemiological investigators in obtaining approval for population-wide studies from multiple IECs (Independent Ethics Committees) existing within a single community. By contrast, the literature is almost silent about the attention that is given to ensuring that, once approved, individual studies are actually conducted in an ethical fashion (Jamrozik 2000 pp. 336).
Although Sociologists, like other researchers are committed to the advancement of knowledge, that goal does not, of itself, provide an entitlement to override the rights of others. Members must satisfy themselves that a study is necessary for the furtherance of knowledge before embarking upon it (British Sociological Association, 2001)
This statement is meant, primarily, to inform members' ethical judgements rather than to impose on them an external set of standards. The purpose is to make members aware of the ethical issues that may arise in their work, and to encourage them to educate themselves and their colleagues to behave ethically (British Sociological Association 2001).
Empirical data have become available that indicate that, in general, it is not particularly hazardous to be a research subject. For example, Arnold has estimated the risks of physical or psychological harm to subjects in Phase I drug testing. According to his estimates, the occupational hazards of the role of subject in this type of research are slightly greater than those of being an office secretary, one-seventh those of window washers, and one-ninth those of miners (Levine, 1988, 39).
It is clear that systems of ethical oversight designed primarily to regulate intervention studies involving individual patients associated with single institutions have been completely overtaken by developments in clinical, molecular and epidemiological research (Jamrozik, 2000, 338).
In many of its forms, social research intrudes into the lives of those studied. While some participants in sociological research may find the experience a positive and welcome one, for others, the experience may be disturbing. Even if not harmed, those studied may feel wronged by aspects of the research process. This can be particularly so if they perceive apparent intrusions into their private and personal worlds, or where research gives rise to false hopes, uncalled-for self-knowledge, or unnecessary anxiety (BSA, <http://www. britsoc.co.uk/bsaweb.php?area=item2&link_id=13>, 2002).
A sensitive topic is one that potentially poses for those involved a substantial threat, the emergence of which renders problematic for the researcher and/or researched the collection, holding, and/or dissemination of research data (Lee & Renzetti, 1993:5).
In considering the burdens imposed upon the research subject, it is of value to distinguish risk of physical or psychological injury from various phenomena for which more fitting terms are "inconvenience", "embarrassment," and so on; "mere inconvenience" is a general term that may be used to discuss these phenomena (Levine.R.J. 1988, 40).
"when society has problems with science, it is often over the question of uncertainty and risk" (House of Lords 2000).
It is seen variously to be an issue of risk (to health, the environment), a question of choice (of patients, consumers), a matter of property rights (to patents, an individual's DNA), of confidentiality (against employers, insurance companies, other family members), or a question of ethics. (Black, 1998; 621).
The 'risk society' is not about physical or ecological risks alone but rather the way in which citizens feel themselves 'at risk' from social and technological development. It is this awareness of threat which makes late modernity distinctive (Irwin, 1995, 47).
(L)RECs are responsible for acting primarily in the interest of potential research participants and concerned communities, but they should also take into account the interests and needs of researchers who are trying to undertake research of a good quality (COREC, 2001).
Research on clients of Social Services (i.e. subjects recruited by virtue of their past or present status as clients of Social Services), including those cared for under contracts with private sector care providers, should have the favourable opinion of a Research Ethics Committee which meets the same general standards as NHS RECs in respect of composition, review process and general operating procedures (Central Office for Research Ethics Committees, 2001).
Social science professional organisations are typically guided by a code of ethics that governs how research is to be conducted by members. Such codes do not as a rule, address the ethical principles on which they are based, nor consider the ethical requirements for specific topics of research (Ringheim 1995) pp. 1691.
2For example, some institutions, who have psychology departments, have a research committee to deal specifically with psychological research [whether health related or not] and actively encourage social scientists to utilise it.
3The British Psychology Association also has similar guidance. 'Ethics committees' were absent from an examination of both the Policy Studies Association, and Political Science Association web pages. Members of these associations may well look to the BSA guidelines for advice.
4Personal correspondence with the ESRC.
5For example the Medical Research Council.
6For example see: [Morley & Walsh 1995]; [Bagihole, 1994]; [Merton, 1973].
7In relation to 'Ethics in peer review' there were 3 hits to this specific topic, none of which addressed ethical principles.
8This would include clinical approaches that take a patient/narrative ethics perspective to illness and treatment.
9Wider implications would include the use to which social science research is put. Evaluations may impact on social service provision, debates about political participation, and government policy that influences lifestyle choices. For example, research on family configuration.
10For a discussion of risk in medical research see; Levine, 1988.
11It is important to note here that as with social science review more generally the concept of 'ethics' is being used without a grounding in ethical principles.
12Adequate statistics are not available on the representation of LREC members, however this claim comes from a range of LREC members with experience of their membership. Indeed the new COREC guidelines include points relating to composition of committees in order to ensure that this problem does not happen.
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