Case study 3: Working "under the radar" without formal review
Rasha and Christopher are psychologists who have their first and second-year students collect data as a learning and teaching exercise. For example, they’ll ask students to conduct interviews with family members and friends, or the students themselves fill out a questionnaire, and then they pool the de-identified data into a master dataset for all the students to analyse as part of a learning exercise. They put tight constraints around the research to ensure that there is only negligible risk: for example, they don’t interview anyone younger than 18, and the data are not retained and the results never published.
This approach leads to better student engagement, Rasha argued,
“because it’s something that’s real to them. You’re not giving them -- which I know some statistics and research methods courses do -- datasets that they just go and do which don’t mean anything to them. The whole process of designing and then going and collecting the data...”
Christopher finished her sentence: “It makes it more authentic, doesn’t it?”
While their processes replicate projects that have formally received ethics approval -- for example, students give out information and consent sheets to participants -- these student research projects do not undergo university ethics review. Rasha and Christopher have periodically discussed the possibility of formally applying for ethics approval, but each time have decided that it would "kill the project."
If the university found out what they were doing and required them to get ethics approval, they would be prepared to argue that these projects don’t need approval because “we’re doing teaching, not research,” but they worry nevertheless about “ethics creep”.
“You know, this year they’re asking for a little sign off; next year they want a three-page proposal; after that they want a fourteen page proposal; and then the next year it’s ‘Sorry, you can’t do that regardless of what you submit.’” If they had to get ethics approval for these teaching exercises, “I wouldn’t do it anymore,” Christopher said flatly. “I’d just give [students] a made-up dataset.”
Like a number of other interviewees engaged in innovative research-led teaching, they both expressed an anxiety that as a result of my fellowship, their students’ research projects will be closed down.
“One of the concerns with your research,” Christopher comments, “although I’m really curious to find out what the status of this is across the country, is that it could open up a can of worms.”
Rasha laughed. “Yes, we don’t want it to come back and bite us on the bum!”
Christopher continued, “I suppose it makes me a bit nervous because I know that the ethics committee can overreach, in my opinion; I know the university can certainly overreach, in my opinion, and these things, they can become a particular interest, can’t they, for powerful people in the university? And that can make life difficult. You know, even though we defend what we’re doing, to the best of my ability, I’m a tiny little fish in a big pond.”
“And I’d have to say,” Rasha added, “we’ve worked really hard to get students engaged in research methods, in the undergraduate curriculum, because it’s only recently that we’ve done a lot of this, and I would see it as a real backward step, in terms of student learning.”
“And it’s not like we’re doing this in a vacuum, either!” Christopher noted. “I mean, there’s a huge body of literature around best practice in engaging students in research. ... But even though I would defend it, I would do my best to defend it, I still don’t want to be in a position where I have to.” He stage whispered, “It’s a waste of time, really!”