Case study 1: Giving up on student research because of bureaucracy
Samuel is the honours coordinator for the Anthropology Department, and he says that “nothing is allowed as part of the teaching that would attract the requirement for an ethics approval.”
He reports that, several years ago, Anthropology undergraduates used to conduct research projects as part of a research methods course. But because of difficulties with the HREC, and the lengthy time it took to have projects reviewed, the department decided to halt undergraduate research.
“It was decided that it was just too hard. So at that point the research project as part of honours was dropped and they were told that they must not do anything in their honours year including for their dissertation that would attract the need for an ethics approval. Students are pointed away from doing anything that may attract the need for ethics approval. We just say don’t do it.”
Part of the problem, he says, is an ethics committee that doesn’t understand the discipline of anthropology or its research methods.
“We’ve had long difficulties with the ethics committee, in the ten years I’ve been here there’s been ongoing discussion and they don’t seem to understand what social sciences are, what anthropology is. The ethics committee is so geared toward sciences and if they’re thinking about people at all, it’s in medical science terms... Its forms and applications process are actually not pitched at the discipline, and therefore can have very little impact upon the ethical standards of work in that discipline. It’s not guided by that committee, it’s not even shaped by that committee, it’s not directed by that committee, we have to do it ourselves.”
Ironically, at Samuel’s institution, a research ethics administrator boasted of the wide range of human research that students undertook across the university and the efficiency of their ethics review system. This was not unusual: one of this project's research findings was that there was often a big disconnect between what researchers and administrators thought about how well their ethics review system worked.