The ethical review process for social science research

October 28, 2009, [MD]

I just finished reading "My freshman year", an ethnographic book about a professor enrolling as a student at her own university, and spending a year living in the dormitory, to try to understand why she feels so disconnected from the contemporary student culture. The book was published under the pseudonym Rebekah Nathan, but a journalist in the New York Sun was able to piece together her real identity - Cathy Small from Northern Arizona University. The book is quite short, and although she does quote from national surveys and some previous research, it's written in a very popular voice, with very little theory.

For various reasons, the book made me think of a lot of different topics. It made me think of many other ethnographic studies that I read during my undergrad, and how I often had the feeling: "is this all you came up with?" The book has some interesting points, but it still seems little after a year of immersing oneself in a community - furthermore a community of which she already had some knowledge. From her own comments, it seems that she decided not to use a large amount of her collected materials, because of concern with ethics.


Which leads me to the question of research ethics, which is something I have thought a lot about recently - not the least having had to go through the Ethical Review Board protocol myself for my field work in China. I was curious to see how the ethics of her fieldwork was received, and I found a long - and quite vitriolic - debate in the comment field under an article by Inside Higher Ed. Most of the people on the list had not yet read the book - nor did they know (until towards the end of the comment thread) her real identity. Most readers were appalled at her use of deception (not telling the other students that she was doing research), although she did use informed consent for her formal interviews, and her IRB approved of the research.

One of the things that surprised me was that she chose to do the research at her own campus. It might have been closer to home, and easier to organize from the university, but it seems to make things much more complicated. I am surprised that she wasn't recognized more, for a university with only 10,000 students, although from what she describes, it's very large and dispersed, and perhaps the anthropologi professors just drive to the anthro building, and stay there. If she had been at UofT Scarborough, she would have ran into colleagues all the time. In addition, it is much easier to discover which university she talked about, and she will probably run into students she lived with (especially since they were freshman, and had three years left), maybe even teach some of them, or meet them in other capacities.

I failed to find any serious discussion about the ethics of her approach (the debate mentioned above was high on temper, low on facts), which would have been interesting - but clearly it worked out, since she is not only still in her job, but also has been travelling around and lecturing about the student experience.

I think that the demand for anonymity, for example, sometimes goes too far -- or is unworkable. I remember another example of a student at my school who was working as a teacher (many of our students are part-time, mid-career). She wrote her thesis on the process of internationalizing the curriculum at her school. She would change the name of the school, but of course, everyone could google her and find out where she lived -- and anyone involved at that school could look up her thesis, and that is probably what's the most relevant. Another recent example is a student who just defended her PhD thesis, and presented on it in our class (taught by her supervisor). She discussed the policies toward internationalization by two different universities, one in Ontario and one in British Columbia. According to her supervisor: "We all understand that this refers to X and Y university, because of their characteristics, but for ethical reasons, we couldn't name them in the thesis". What ethical reasons, if anyone familiar with the Canadian context can immediately deduce which universities are in question?

I guess my biggest problem with elaborate ERB protocols is that they do exactly the opposite of what they are supposed to do: incite debate, reflection and continued care. Instead, with their 20 page protocols that take months to get through, people focus on writing to get approved, not daring to take chances with new research methods, for example, because it might delay their project for too long. Instead of allowing you to go to a new country, spend time understanding the situation deeper, and then modifying your research plan accordingly, it binds you to a rigid structure, or forces you to go through months waiting to have the new proposal approved. It would be interesting with studies of how people have modified their research designs to be "safe", to not challenge the review board, because they cannot risk having their approval delayed. I'd also like to know about the implementation of the ethics requirements across Canada, I know they are based on the tri-councils who fund research in Canada, but it would be interesting to look at how interpretation and execution differs across institutions.

In January this year, University Affairs reported that there were changes afoot to make the ethics process more responsive to the concern of social science researchers, whereas it traditionally has been very much oriented towards the biomedical sciences and their concerns. It will be interesting to see the changes, and how quickly they trickle down to the institutional level.

Stian Picture from Office of Research and Sponsored Programs, St. Catherine University.

Stian HĂ„klev October 28, 2009 Toronto, Canada
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