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.

What is a maître d’enseignement et de recherche (MER)?

Maître d’enseignement et de recherche (MER) are relatively rare positions which were apparently introduced in universities in the French-speaking area of Switzerland in the 1990s.

MER are part of the corps intermédiaire (German: Mittelbau) along with PhD researchers and postdoctoral researchers. They are very similar to the Maître-assistante (MA) positions, also unique to French-speaking universities in Switzerland, as far as I know, with the only difference that MER are open-ended after evaluation, whereas MA positions are fixed-term (this makes MER the only positions in the corps intermédiaire that can be open-ended).

As other positions of the corps intermédiaire, MER are not part of the decision-making in universities, normally have no assistants, and may be excluded from some internal resources. They are attached to a chair, which limits independence in teaching and research, and typically teach more than professors. Despite the R in the name, apparently some MER effectively teach full time. Compared to professors, MER and MA have a lower salary and are often employed part-rime. Unlike Lecturers in the British system, no promotion is foreseen for MER (at all). In this sense, the ‘official’ translation of MER (and MA) into ‘senior lecturer’ is inaccurate.

Image credit: CC-by Jeena Paradies

Join the serious conversation on immigration — CAS Migration and Diversity

Immigration is no doubt a topic high on the political agenda and omni-present in everyday debates. Jointly with the Master of Advanced Studies in Intercultural Communication, Università della Svizzera italiana, the Swiss Forum for Migration and Population Studies (SFM) of the University of Neuchâtel offers a Certificate in Advanced Studies on Migration and Diversity. There is still time to apply and joint the serious conversation on immigration.

CAS – Migration and Diversity – Leaflet