Best practice and policy recommendations

 

A few approaches stood out as best practice. These can be a model for how institutions can innovate in research-led teaching.

 

  • First, when institutions have dedicated forms for research-teaching projects, it convinces teachers that human research is possible for students, even expected or desirable, rather than a struggle with bureaucracy which only the most determined will attempt to overcome. Seven of the 14 universities visited had dedicated forms for student research (see sample ethics forms for student research).  Yet many teachers at these seven institutions had no idea that there was a dedicated review process for research-teaching projects or that it was even possible to get approval at the class level for student research.

  • There is thus a clear need for high-level institutional support and an institutional culture that values student research. DVCs of research and teaching need to both send messages to administrators that research-led teaching is a goal, and encourage the simplification of systems to make this easier for both teachers and administrators, whose enthusiasm for research-led teaching often buckles under the weight of bureaucracy. 

  • Online ethics training is a good way to scale up outreach and build capacity in research ethics for both staff and students.  Three institutions have free online research ethics training courses that can be adapted for different disciplines and research methods: Macquarie University, University of Wollongong, and The University of Melbourne Dental School (see ethics training resources). Institutions must approach ethics training in terms of capacity-building.  Punitive approaches to ethics review results in researchers regarding the process as substance-less bureaucracy rather than a meaningful engagement with ethical thinking.

  • The best practice approach to ethics review identified in this project was a psychology department that had set up ethics review at the department level and developed easy and short ethics application forms specific to the disciplinary methods they used.  In that department, student research was taking place at every level of the curriculum and ethics review took on average three days (compared to months at other institutions). 

 

Policy recommendations: How to drive institutional change

Building on these best practice models, there are many ways that individuals at all levels of the institution can help be drivers of change:

 

University executives
  • Members of a university’s executive can communicate to their human research ethics committees (HRECs) that their mission is to facilitate innovative research, including student research.  There is a widespread belief amongst researchers and teachers that HRECs are inherently conservative.  They need not be, but when researchers and administrators alike fear being shut down by risk-averse bureaucrats, high-level leaders at the institution need to broadcast their support for risk taking and for staff who want to go beyond the existing frontiers in research and teaching.  

  • One way for institutional leaders to communicate their willingness to expand the scale of research at that institution is by providing financial and organizational support to HRECs to enable them to deal with the scale of expanding research and ethics review.

 

Ethics committees
  • Heads of ethics secretariats and HRECs can adopt dedicated forms for student research, conveying to teachers that human research by students is not only possible but expected and normal at their institution. Sample forms can be accessed at www.teaching-research-ethics.com.

  • Heads of HRECs and ethics secretariats should also reach out to researchers and teachers, both to communicate the possibilities of research-led teaching but also to understand their experiences of ethics review, to thereby close that gap between administrators’ and researchers’ perceptions of the review process.

 

Heads of departments, schools, and faculties
  • Heads of departments, schools and faculties can negotiate with their HRECs to decentralise ethics review for low risk and student research at the faculty, school, or departmental level. The advantages of decentralisation are many:

    • It relieves overworked central HRECs, thus potentially enabling faster review.

    • Local committees are less intimidating and less of a “black box” of faceless bureaucracy when they are staffed by familiar colleagues.

    • Centralised committees are often perceived as being divorced from the reality of discipline-specific research, whereas local review provides a concentration of discipline-specific expertise, which can improve the review process for researchers and teachers. 

    • Situating ethics review in departments and schools also means more people engaged in ethics review, which will expand institutional capacity for ethical research planning and debate.

 

Teachers
  • Teachers can build capacity for ethical thinking in their students by incorporating discussions around research design and human research ethics debates into their teaching.  A number of free, online resources are available to train students in research ethics (see www.teaching-research-ethics.com) and can be adapted for use as teaching materials (e.g. lecture slides).

  • Teachers can also propose dedicated forms to their HRECs and work with committees to adapt them to specific institutional and disciplinary contexts.  Many of the ethics secretariats that handle the bureaucracy of ethics applications are underfunded, and what appears to be conservativism is really just an ethics secretariat that is too overworked for innovation. Teachers can launch innovative processes from below by proposing change and collaborating with their committees to achieve it.

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