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The Society for Research into Higher Education


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Research ethics committees should rethink risk

by Jacqueline Stevenson, Tom Power and Alison Fox

There are good reasons why institutional human research ethics committees (RECs) or research ethics boards (REBs) are needed in higher education institutions – namely, to ensure research participants are treated in accordance with a set of agreed standards and principles. This includes, for example, avoiding harm, ensuring informed consent, clarifying how any data collected will be stored and used, and ensuring transparency in relation to gaining access to participants through gatekeepers. There is also an ethical imperative to ensure a certain level of quality so that research has the potential to be of benefit to individuals, and society.  

There has been growing concern over the last twenty years, however, that some RECs have become such powerful regulatory bodies that they have almost complete control over what institutional research is conducted, as well as how and where it is undertaken. The ways in which RECs approach the approval of research ethics can seem antithetical to many of the other prevailing discourses of higher education (in the UK in particular), such as the need to decolonise research, the commitment to enhancing equity and inclusion, the focus on the co-creation of knowledge, and the push for greater co-collaboration with external stakeholders. 

In 2004, Haggerty drew attention to the worrying trend of what he coined ‘ethics creep’, where ethics committees have been afforded significant levels of institutional power above and beyond that for which they were initially tasked – including bringing within their scope and oversight those forms of activity which were historically not considered research, such as on-campus surveys, or in-class student research. Moreover, concerns have been levelled at RECs for being secretive in the ways in which they work, inconsistent in their approach to applying their own guidelines, and prioritising a box-ticking approach over any exploration of more meaningful ethical considerations (see Allen, 2008 for an overview).  

A further concern for many educational researchers is that approaches to ethical review, initially developed in relation to biomedical sciences, have largely been positivist. Such approaches can be detrimental to more qualitative research – particularly research which is collaborative in nature, involves participatory methodologies, or is exploratory in approach – where methods may evolve over time (Guta, Nixon and Wilson, 2013). This, as we have written elsewhere, has implications for empowerment and equitable participation, and limits possibilities for challenging the power, dominance, and colonial practices of the global north (Fox and Busher, 2022) . 

Such concerns about the ways in which RECs operate are not, for us, purely hypothetical. We have each grappled with the complexities, vagaries, frustrations and ‘emotional vicissitudes’ (Monaghan, O’Dwyer and Gabe, 2013) of gaining ethical approval. We have done this as educational researchers, as members of RECs trying to influence our own ethics committees, and as supervisors supporting doctoral researchers, including those raising concerns at the SRHE’s professional development events about their struggles to gain ethical approval for planned projects. This is particularly problematic since the “de-risking” of research plans can stifle innovation, limiting possible contributions to existing knowledge and the development of new knowledges.  

The privileging of research ethics approvals for projects which are quasi-scientific in approach, rather than those that draw on innovative qualitative methodologies, can significantly limit our understanding of the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ and not just the ‘what’ of global concerns, such as educational disadvantage, poverty, climate change, or global health issues. 

It is eminently possible, however, for RECs to approve projects which are methodologically innovative, participatory in nature, collaborative in approach, and which involve external stakeholders – including from countries where approaches to research ethics may be thought of differently to how they are thought about in the global north. To do so, however, requires RECs to accept a significant level of trust in their academic researchers. Such trust is demonstrated by some RECs but is by no means universal.  

Despite these complexities we recently gained ethical approval for the 3MPower (Mobile Learning for the Empowerment of Marginalised Mathematics Educators) project at The Open University, UK, achieving an outcome which may not only offer hope to other researchers of what is possible, but which might also act as an exemplar to other research ethics committees of what can be achieved if they are prepared to put faith in their own researchers. 

The 3MPower project, funded by the EdTech hub, is a collaborative project generating evidence on technology use for Teacher Professional Development in Bangladesh, with a particular focus on children’s foundation numeracy skills in schools serving marginalised, low-income, rural communities. The project brings together researchers from the Open University and Dhaka University, Bangladesh, and involves a broad range of national stakeholders including government policymakers, policy implementers, teacher educators, rural education officers, and rural teachers. It also enables early career researchers working with PEER (Participatory Ethnographic Evaluation Research) researchers in Bangladesh to elicit the voices and experiences of marginalised teachers in rural communities.  

Inherent in the methodology are several approaches which are at odds with the normal requirements of RECs. 

First is the commitment of the project team to empower all those involved in the research, and to share power equitably between and across both researchers and other stakeholders. This has required institutional acceptance that the locus of control over the research activities cannot rest solely with The Open University and that research approaches need to reflect both the global north and the global south. 

Second is the commitment to trusting researchers in the field to behave with appropriate respect, integrity, and trustworthiness without the need for written information sheets to be provided to research participants or to have written consent elicited from them (these were considered both epistemologically or culturally inappropriate and thus a barrier to participation). 

Third, although the project’s broad methodological approach had been explicated in the ethics application, the methods being used are organic and constantly evolving dependent upon emerging findings from the field. For this reason, specifying detailed interview or survey questions was accepted as not possible before the research started.  

The REC was therefore required to trust its researchers to act with integrity. However, it is important to note that the researchers were also required to keep the REC updated about the developing research by submitting amendments to the REC application in response to iterations of the collaborative design. This allows ongoing dialogue between the research team and the REC – ensuring that the processes of ethical approval go beyond the ‘tick box’ activity critiqued above. 

In short, the REC agreed to the team delivering a research project underpinned by a set of principles which are at the heart of all good educational research! These include empowerment and power sharing; decolonising research by recognising and valuing the experiences, voices, and knowledges of others, especially those from the global south; and trusting in the skills and experiences of others, including those working in different countries and with different cultural beliefs. However, because the project team could not specify and submit all the artefacts normally required by a REC at the outset (consent forms, information sheets, survey tools, interview protocols), it is likely that the project would have not gained approval in many other HEIs – or certainly not in the form it has done.  

The 3MPower project team had several advantages. Not only did Tom, as the Principal Investigator, have extensive experience of working on similar projects but all of the research leadership team had prior research experience in Bangladesh. Moreover, as the then Deputy Chair of the Human Research Ethics Committee Alison had extensive understanding of qualitative, education-related research ethics, drawn not only from her institutional experiences but also from work reviewing and developing research ethics frameworks including with the British Educational Research Association (BERA). The project team therefore had a key advocate and a team of researchers who were already trusted.  

So, with support and through dialogue, ethical approval was granted, and the door was opened for ongoing support and mutual learning between the research team and REC about what is considered worthwhile and culturally appropriate research in Bangladesh. This is likely to be different for researchers in a less privileged position or where those involved in RECs have less experience (and this is often the case). Certainly, those PhD students who attend our SRHE professional development events tell a very different story.  

If we are to respond to society’s key challenges then it is time for RECs to become more risk-tolerant rather than risk-averse. This might involve re-evaluating risk through the eyes of gatekeepers and participants in the research context, giving greater weight to their voice during the ethics approval processes. RECs need to enable and not suppress innovation, and to both empower and trust higher education researchers and their research teams. This requires a rethinking of positionality, perspective, and philosophical beliefs about the way in which research can be conducted.  

Such rethinking of ethical practices can disrupt prior assumptions and contribute to learning about other ways of knowing and valuing within RECs. However, change needs to take place more broadly and more consistently across the sector. This needs to be done and done soon. The SRHE can, and should, be a key driver in pushing for change. 

Jacqueline Stevenson is a research associate on the 3MPower project at the Open University, visiting professor of Sociology of Education at the University of Leeds, and chair of the SRHE’s Research and Development Committee.

Tom Power is the Principal Investigator of the 3MPower project, a member of the Edtech Hub’s Building EdTech Evidence and Research (BETER) advisory group, and a Deputy Associate Dean for Knowledge Exchange at the Open University.

Alison Fox is Associate Head of School for Research and Knowledge Exchange for the School of Education, Childhood, Youth and Sport, Chair of The Open University Human Research Ethics Committee and a member of British Educational Research Association Council.

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Fake Research and Trust in the Social Sciences

By Rob Cuthbert (Editorial from SRHE News, October 2018)

In 1996 physics professor Alan Sokal (New York/UCL) submitted a hoax article to Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ argued nonsensically that quantum gravity was a social and linguistic construct. The journal did not at that time practise peer review and the article was not submitted for expert consideration by any physicist. Sokal revealed his hoax on the day of publication and it was understandably seized on by conservative science academics as evidence that some social science academics are predisposed to accept arguments that fit their ideological preferences, a thesis put forward by biologist Paul Gross (Virginia) and mathematician Norman Levitt (Rutgers), in their 1994 book Higher Superstition: The Academic Left and Its Quarrels with Science, which Sokal said had inspired his hoax.

The Sokal affair prompted much comment, ranging from support of his hoax as a legitimate exposure of academic shortcomings to severe criticism of the questionable ethics of his manoeuvring. Social Text editors at Duke University, Bruce Robbins and Andrew Ross, wrote a long response in attempted justification, which variously said the piece had at first been rejected, that it had been accepted in the sense of being a well-meaning attempt by a scientist to engage in an outdated way with a different discipline, that their journal was more like a magazine than an academic journal, and that it was ethically unacceptable for Sokal to behave as he had.

Twenty years on, Continue reading


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Challenges of multilingual studies

The SRHE Blog is now read in more than 100 countries worldwide, and we have therefore decided to introduce publications in more than one language. Click on ‘Versão em Português below to jump to the Portuguese language version of this post. In the next few months we hope to post blogs in French, Russian, Chinese and more. SRHE members worldwide are encouraged to forward this notification, especially to non-English-speaking colleagues.

New contributions are welcome, especially if they address topical issues of policy or practice in countries other than England and the USA. Submissions may be written either in English or in the author’s native language. Please send all contributions to the Editor, rob.cuthbert@uwe.ac.uk

Desafios de realizar pesquisas multilíngues Versão em Português

by Aliandra Barlete

I have been intrigued – and somehow fascinated, too – by the ethical implications of conducting international research. As an international student in the UK, ethical dilemmas have surfaced many times, in spite of preparation during the course of studies. Continue reading

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Embracing plurality and difference in higher education – necessary but not sufficient

By Rob Cuthbert – Editor, SRHE News

The SRHE Annual Research Conference in December 2014 invites us to reflect on Inspiring future generations: embracing plurality and difference in higher education: ‘Within the HE research community we have the capacity, the history, the knowledge and the expertise to inform and shape the transformation of the higher education sector globally into an innovative, multi-faceted system; one with new and different sources of funding, with diverse modes of participation and one more responsive to the changing needs and expectations of people, institutions and societies.’ Quite right: inspiration is a benefit we expect of Conference every year. We have it in ourselves to be the best, but there are always temptations to be otherwise, with the lure of funds and reputation sometimes suggesting unethical short cuts. SRHE Vice-President Roger Brown, who in his latest book bemoaned the kind of marketisation where it appears that everything is for sale, has recently warned that ‘The pursuit of status will be the death of the university as we know it.’

Reports of ethical lapses are usually tales of individual transgression and recent European research on unethical behaviour suggests that too many academics admit to some of the behaviours of which they disapprove. But even this pales by comparison to an academic scandal at one of the US’s leading universities, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Continue reading