Ever heard of New Zealand’s very own “Unfortunate Experiment”? Or perhaps you’ve heard of the Cartwright Inquiry that resulted from the horrors of this so-called ‘treatment’? If not – imagine being really sick and finding out that your doctor hasn’t been treating you properly – on purpose! For more info, go googling! That, my friends, illustrates just one example as to why ethical practice is so very important.
Having dabbled in a bit of research in my student days, and sat in on a few Ethics Committee meetings during my time here as a Uni staff member, I thought I had a fair idea of what ‘ethics in research’ was all about. However a while ago I went to check out the ‘Navigating your Ethics Committee’ workshop, run by GRS. It was here that I realised there was a whole lot I hadn’t considered, and it reiterated, for me anyway, why we should be taking this stuff really seriously, and not just ticking a few boxes on a form!
The bottom line is that as researchers, you have knowledge that others don’t. This can be a risky business. Some research, by nature, involves a certain level of deception; the omission or distortion of information, for example, the placebo effect. It is this type of research that will often produce the most effective results, but can also hold the greatest risk to both participants and the researcher.
This is where our multiple University Human Ethics Committees come into play – to help identify and minimise these risks. We have the UO Human Ethics Committee, and the UO Health Ethics Committee. Made up of academics/researchers, members of outside organisations and lay people, if you’re doing research that involves human participants, you should be submitting an application to one of these committees. These intelligent and worldly people identify and assess any biases in your research; potential harm to both participants and the researcher (physical or emotional); raise issues perhaps not yet considered by the researcher; and overall try to add value to your research. To quote Gary Witte, Manager of Academic Committees and Secretary to the University’s HECs, “the Ethics Committee endeavours to trend away from compliance to a culture of conscience”.
Basically, they’re not trying to ruin your fun or pick your research design to pieces out of spite because they missed their morning coffee – they are there to help broaden your mind as to the wider implications of your research; and most importantly, to protect you as the researcher, the generous people participating in your research, and the University, from anything going terribly wrong.
The workshop itself was engaging. Presenters, Gary Witte, and Dr Mike King from the Department of Bioethics, welcomed discussion, questions, and offered some helpful tips to get you started with your ethics proposals…
- Provide too much information in your ethics application – a common reason applications are turned back is due to lack of info;
- Consent processes need to be ‘bullet-proof’ and appropriate to the audience (i.e. in a consent form for a six year old, use big font, not big words!);
- Be clear as to the inclusion and exclusion criteria of your research participants;
- Be aware of overused groups (e.g. Pregnant women in Dunedin – there are only so many at any one time, and may get sick of you all hounding them while they are trying to grow another human);
- Gifts should not be an ‘inappropriate inducement’ ($500 for filling in a questionnaire is a little over the top);
- Develop a ‘Plan B’ in case ‘Plan A’ falls short; and lastly…
- OWN your ethics application. Get all up in that grill, and the Committee won’t grill you! (Wow, that was somewhere between a terrible pun and a bad dad joke – eek!).
Check out our webpage and try and head along to the next ethics workshop – it really is worth a look: http://www.otago.ac.nz/research/graduate/otago041922.html
Be sure to visit the Human Ethics Committee webpage too for the nitty gritty of ethics applications: http://www.otago.ac.nz/council/committees/committees/HumanEthicsCommittees.html
There is also a really handy brochure available from Academic Committees (located on the ground floor of the Clocktower Building, G23); and the team’s contact details can be found on their webpage (link above).
Side note: while the focus of this piece is about human ethics, we also need to think seriously about the ethical treatment of our furry friends when using them in our research. Often more so, as there aren’t nearly enough species with opposable thumbs who can sign those consent forms… so please visit the University’s Animal Ethics webpage for more info about doing research with these guys:
Sarah McGregor, Graduate Research School