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.