Ethics versus Permissions

Today we’ve been discussing ethics and research. I’m very happy to see ethics being discussed in research articles, but from the perspective of someone not in an environment ‘governed’ by IRB decisions, we’re following the developments with some concern.

Let me be clear, ethics in research is a good and essential part of what we’re doing. What is worrying, though, is the formalization of ethics decisions to the extent that a commission decides and approves which research is ethically legitimate and gets a permission to go ahead. No permission, no research.

Increasingly, journals ask for IRB approval when we submit our research to them. To the extent that this encourages a discussion of research ethics and practices to match, I welcome this. To the extent that it takes one way of doing research ethics for granted (the way of IRB approvals), I’m not so sure.

A challenge in interdisciplinary panels is that we mean quite different things when we use the same terminology, like “covert research”. Because it’s formalized, there is a real risk that the instruments we use for ethical research — like informed consent forms — become a principle in themselves, not the underlying concerns for the respect for people. With that, we drive researchers to find creative ways to fulfil the formal requirements, but we do not necessarily encourage them to think about the ethical implications of the research.

When we’re in the logic of permissions and approvals, the incentives for the researchers are simply to follow a certain procedure. For the institutions, the incentives are to minimize the risk of being sued, and this may not necessarily align with ethical research practices. Will we soon have to submit a DOI for the approvals when we submit to journals as proof that we’ve followed the procedures, just so that we can demonstrate we’re not to blame? It won’t be about ethical guidance when we feel we need it, or a comforting second opinion, but a matter of form. Is there still time to take matters in our own hands and design research ethics from the bottom up? Or is the IRB way inevitable?

Salganik, Matthew J. 2017. Bit by Bit: Social Research in the Digital Age. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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