Case study 2: Ethics review within departments
Paul runs a departmental ethics committee in Psychology. The Psychology Department incorporates student research into their undergraduate teaching in all years of the degree. The projects are usually only for teaching purposes, though sometimes teachers want to use the data collected for their own research (in these cases, students are asked to give “double consent” and can confidentially opt out of having their data used by their teachers to avoid a conflict of interest and pressure to participate).
Lecturers gain approval for a project through the ethics committee and students act as “practice researchers”. The responsibility for the ethical aspects of the research remains with the staff member. Students act like research assistants in that they collect the data and must follow the guidelines required for the project, including gaining consent and providing the information form to participants. Yet in other cases, students seek ethics approval for their own research projects. Most of these projects are low-risk, and all low-risk psychology applications are dealt with by a Psychology Department HREC subcommittee.
The Psychology Department has created its own tailor-made ethics application forms that are specific to the types of research methodologies they typically use. Because they specifically address clinical psychology research methods and thus are not burdened by irrelevant questions about other disciplinary methodologies, these application forms are incredibly short and concise compared to those used in other universities, and even those used by the university-wide ethics committee. The shortest applications, Paul reports, are two to three pages long, plus a participant information sheet; the more complex ones are only four or five pages long. (In comparison, the university-wide ethics application form is typically around thirty pages.)
Commenting on his simplified ethics application forms, Paul says,
“You’re better off not being too officious, not being too bureaucratic with simple applications. That way you actually get more compliance. You actually get better approval processes I think. When it becomes too difficult people say, ‘Bugger, that’s too hard. I won’t do it.’”
The corollary of these short application forms is that they are reviewed with extraordinary rapidity. (It helps that Paul is a workaholic.) The subcommittee receives applications on a rolling basis, so there are no deadlines and formal meetings. Ethics committee members consult with each other online or by phone when necessary. The lowest-risk applications are reviewed only by the subcommittee chair, and he reviews and provides feedback to the applicants within a day of receiving most applications. “I just take them home and read them. They’re very simple,” he says. More complex applications go out to two or three additional reviewers and for these it takes about a week to review. On average, ethics applications that go through his subcommittee are reviewed in a mere three days.
The department incorporates research ethics training into the curriculum at all levels: undergraduate, honours, and masters. Students are also trained in what constitutes low-risk research, so they can know what application forms to use for their project. Greater than low-risk research goes to the university HREC for review. The HREC has an audit process whereby it reviews a selection of Psychology Department low-risk projects on a quarterly basis, to ensure that they are meeting the low-risk guidelines.
In contrast with most HREC chairs whom I interviewed, many of whom were aware that a lot of research took place without undergoing ethics review at their universities, Paul says that the clarity of procedure results in full compliance with ethics review processes in his department.
“The slower the bureaucratic process the less compliance you get. Being efficient as an ethics committee and directing your attention where it is needed, to potential threats and genuine ethical research leads to high participation rates. We’ve got 100%. Every application here goes there. Everyone does it.”