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The Cycle of Ethics Review (Ethics review part 4)

4 October, 2007

Part of my continuing series on Ethnography and Ethics Review at Macquarie University (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

At Macquarie University all applications to the Ethics Review Committee (Human Research) go through a vetting process that can send them along several tracks for consideration. For the moment, two tracks for consideration exist, but there is the possibility that a third is arising (a couple of applications have been recommended for a new trajectory in the past month as the Committee responds to language in the National Statement on Research Ethics that allows us to shorten review of applications with no perceptible risk).

In this posting, I want to help clarify for students what the two review trajectories are, how long they take, and what are the factors that will likely lead an application to be sent along one or the other. As our own records show in the Ethics Committe (and is on the diagram) over three-quarters of all applications are now handled through the Expedited online review, which seems to be speeding up the process (in addition to getting rid of the previous system of monthly deadlines so that applications are rolling).

MU ethics process diagram medium

Applications without significant issues (see below) can be handled online through the Expedited process. There is no need to apply specially for this; all applications are examined and then allocated either to the Expedited or the Normal process. The Expedited process can take up to 20 working days (four work weeks) although it generally takes less time in the off-peak months (the Committee tends to get swamped at the start of the year as an influx of MA and Honours projects comes into the office).

The Normal process can take longer or shorter because it depends upon the next time that the Committee will have a physical meeting (see the schedule here). If you have an application with certain complicating factors (again, see below), you actually WANT it to go to a meeting so that it can be evaluated, discussed, voted upon, and reported upon at this meeting. You do NOT want to hide the complications and hope that it will slide through on an electronic review. The longest application turnarounds happen when an applicant tries to conceal things to get an electronic review, and then part way through the electronic review, after days have already been wasted, someone points out this fact, and the application gets remanded over to the Normal process. This can happen, for example, if an applicant indicates that he or she is not investigating illegal activity—i.e., answering ‘no’ to Item 3.8—when it becomes clear this is a possibility, as it often is with open-ended interviews.

If you have a complicated application with some serious issues, you definitely need to be aware of the meeting schedule, and you want your application to go to the meeting. You can actually get very quick turnaround on this if you time it correctly. Please note, however, that you are only guaranteed to get into a meeting if you get your application in two weeks before the meeting—the day before will mean that you can’t be considered until the following meeting, so you’ll have to wait at least a month.

So I can already hear you asking, what are the key issues that demand a Normal review process rather than an Expedited one?

1) Investigating illegal behaviour: If you’re directly investigating illegal activity, then the Committee needs to carefully consider the risks (including to you), the reporting requirements, the applicable law, and the risks to the university.

The question of whether or not information about illegal activity may come to light during the research is a lot more ambiguous. I am personally concerned that an overly high bar currently applies to open-ended interviews with populations that might have been engaged in illegal behaviour (that is, just about any population). Anthropologists get questioned about this by the Committee a lot, especially when they want to work in areas where illegal activity is pretty common (e.g., borders, communities with drug abuse, at-risk families). Personally, I think that the Committee is overly sensitive on this one, and I’m strongly encouraging that we give out advice for researchers, helping to clarify what their reporting responsibilities are under the law (most don’t know this) and what we consider important ethical considerations to be. Currently, we ask every researcher to come up with his or her own process for contingencies. I’m not happy about this, and I’m working to fix it.

2) Working with vulnerable populations: This condition does frequently apply to anthropological research, although Macquarie is most concerned about disabled people, refugees, asylum-seekers, Aboriginal communities, prisoners, hospital patients, and anyone else covered in 4.2. You’ll notice that all minorities and children are not on this list, so applications that include them are not automatically put through the Normal process but may still be directed along the Expedited path.

3) Deception of subjects (unless it is terribly minor): This issue tends not to apply to ethnographic projects as they seldom involve systematic deception (except, perhaps, self-deception). But this goes to the issue of informed consent; how can a person truly agree to participate in research if he or she does not know what that entails? Deception does not mean that a project will be rejected, but it usually requires a discussion of the Committee to approve it.

4) A conflict of interest: The whole Committee will have to review a proposal when there is a conflict of interest, but only the types of conflict of interest described in Section 8 of the application. Most participant observation does not involve these sorts of conflict of interest, as they primarily concentrate on asymmetries of power or role conflict in which unintentional coercion might occur with subjects. For example, if you are an employer and want to study your employees, you may have a conflict of interest.

5) Institutional information sought: If you answer ‘yes’ to Item 6.1 and need to fill out Appendix D, then you will go to a full Committee discussion. This involves seeking personal records about people from the government, police, hospital, school, or similar organization. That is, it involves examining personal and typically confidential files. Note: this doesn’t apply if you ask for those files from your subjects, only when you go to them from the organization holding them. From the description, it is clear that this does not generally apply to ethnographic work, although I can imagine some projects where it might.

6) Passive consent sought: In some very limited settings (see the Ethics Committee’s Guidelines), researchers may seek for an ‘opt out’ form of consent. This only really applies to school-based research, where it’s often very hard to get kids to take consent forms home to their parents or guardians and then get them back. So many forms get lost or never shown to parents that, in some circumstances, researchers ask to have a ‘passive consent’ process. It’s only really possible if the students will be doing tasks for the research that are very similar to what they would normally do in the classroom (that is, you couldn’t do a survey on sexual behaviour or run medical tests on kids, and hope to have it get approval for passive consent).

If one of these conditions does apply to your research, you will want your application to go to the Committee meeting, so you may even want to mention it in the email when you submit your application electronically (you’ll also need to submit a hard copy for archiving and photocopy). Remember: It’s not necessarily a longer process if you make it in prior to the two-week cut-off before a meeting (and the administrators have been known to bend even this deadline to try to get applications through).

You may not believe it if you give credence to the gossip you might hear around campus, but many of us on the committee really want to expedite research. But we need good applications to do this. Vague, unclear, self-contradictory applications that seek to cover over or conceal ethical concerns are the slowest, most difficult applications to get through, and the applicant can actually work against the efforts of the Committee to get it approved. Challenging but well argued cases, even for work with ethical concerns, often go through very quickly. I’ve frequently heard Committee members say things to the effect of, ‘I might be concerned about the [fill in the blank: deception, oral consent, questions about illegal activity, work with vulnerable people…], but the application is really well put together and makes a great case for [same thing in the blank], so I think we should approve it conditionally so that the researcher can get to work.’ For example, we on the Committee know that research about vulnerable populations is some of the most valuable work that we in academe can do for the good of society, so we want it to happen.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 October, 2007 12:41 pm

    Greg, I support what you argue in principle, but my good faith in the ethics committee wavered once again when I heard that the committee demanded to know where — i.e. at which particular location, with address — one of our masters students wanted to conduct completely innocuous focus groups on male beauty. How can this possibly have ethical implications?

  2. 8 October, 2007 10:13 am

    Greg, and following AAW’s comment above, what’s interesting in your entry is some of the language about deception and the implication that it’s deliberate. For example, you say that the things that take the longest time to be reviewed are ones in which the aspiring researcher “tries to conceal things” to have their application processed more quickly. But then the example that you use of what they might be trying to conceal is the *possibility* that illegal activity might be revealed in the course of open-ended conversations, and you go on to suggest that some members of the ethics committee think that this could come up in just about any population. That doesn’t sound like a matter of deliberate concealment; it sounds more like someone who has failed to imagine all the dark consequences of normal conversations and human interactions. Your suggestions for how to get around this are excellent: giving advice ahead of time about the clear consequences of eliciting discussions of illegal activity, clearly delineating populations and situations where revelations of illegal activity are more likely to occur, and generally increasing the transparency of the ethics committee’s deliberations to make the process more collaborative, less antagonistic. But perhaps the way language of deliberate concealment slipped into your blog posting points to something more generally structural about oversight committees: that they are mechanisms of surveillance, and they will always provoke types of resistance amongst the surveilled, to varying degrees.

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