21 May 2010

On degrees of research ethics constraints

As ever, this reflection is prompted by the juxtaposition of two events.

I came down from the study a few minutes ago and looked in on my wife, who was watching a reality TV programme which included CCTV footage, to ask if she would like a cup of tea (stupid question). It just would not have been practicable to get the broadcast consent of all the people who appeared, but the material was sent out to millions of potential viewers without--it appears--the consent question ever having been raised.

But up in the study I was looking at partial drafts of master's dissertations, and checking off among other things, whether ethical clearance has been obtained for the empirical research component. It did not arise this time, but I do remember a few years ago when a student--who happened to be employed by the National Health Service--wanted simply to pilot a questionnaire to see whether the questions were clear and unbiassed, etc. She was daft enough to follow the regulations, and request ethics clearance to ask half a dozen of her colleagues whether the questionnaire made sense (admittedly she was not the only daft one; the university's regulations also required clearance by employers and other stakeholders, without a clue of the implications.) The date for the Ethics Committee to consider her request merely to pilot the instrument was later than the submission date for the entire dissertation. (She actually got the group together over lunch on a day off, off NHS premises, and they talked about her ideas... The survey was much improved as a result.)

My doctoral research would be impossible today, because the interviews at the heart of the empirical component were undertaken under a pretext. By current standards I was insufficiently explicit about my research topic. But had I been more explicit I would have pre-empted many answers... and invalidated the research. There was no way in which the interviews could have harmed or disadvantaged respondents, but...

Lord Triesman was apparently recorded making indiscreet remarks about football cheating by a supposed "friend". The transcript (or perhaps a third-generation selectively edited copy) was distributed to the media, and he has resigned from whatever position he had. (Full disclosure--all I know about this is based on a minute or two of radio news. But by media standards, that's due diligence.)

Double standards?

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