2.2 Institutional Research

Activity 6A: Institutional Approval of Research

Find a copy of your own institutions ethical review procedure (sometimes called IRB) and link to it in the forum below. Include some of your own comments about anything that strikes you as noteworthy. Comment on at least one post by another person. Are your procedures similar or different?

Once you’ve finished this activity, head on back to section 2.2.

We haven’t had any contributions to this one yet, but here are some things to look out for:

  • who is responsible for making sure that research is ethical?
  • how is research identified as ethical?
  • can we know what kind of research will be ethical before we start planning a study?
  • is this about rules, principles, or both?

Here’s the University of Cape Town’s Ethics Code for Research Involving Human Subjects (bit of a mouthful).

What interested me mostly is that ethical clearance within any particular research project is tied to the individual identified as the Principal Investigator, and not to the position. Therefore if a new PI comes on board the project, the ethical clearance process has to be repeated. Is this typical ethical practice?

Secondly, one particularly interesting clause on page 3 caught my eye:
“The University of Cape Town recognises society’s right of timely access to research findings and to open debate on their implications. Consequently, UCT is committed to upholding the principle that research findings should be made responsibly and freely available to the public and not be unreasonably withheld.”

And yet, the ethics policy itself does not have any particular commitment to open research, which I found curious. However, UCT does also have an Open Access policy that does encourage scholars to use open licensing and make their research outputs openly available.

Thanks, Thomas - this is an interesting case as we don’t always see the imperative to make findings freely available. There’s a degree of interpretation here - free availability is arguably different from releasing data openly. And the fact that it isn’t in the ethics policy is quite typical, I would say, even thought many open advocates would argue that it should be.

Thank Thomas for posting the ethics code for our institution (University of Cape Town).

It really is a very comprehensive guideline to ethical research, but I cannot help but wonder what they would put in place if they considered open research and open data. They do however mention the responsibility of the researcher and I suppose we just have to do the very best we can to protect the people we are researching.

I am not in an institution but I have been in a few - corporate and academic.
You could take the view that when you enter an institution, it always involves accepting a contract or Terms and Conditions which include that you will be evaluated, measured, compared and otherwise ranked in performance and behaviour. Such comparisons are sometimes published - results list on departmental boards (do they still do that?).
This could be taken as consent for all sorts of research but I wonder if such generic permissions can be taken as informed consent? I am sure that unions and staff or student representative bodies object to some of the research and analysis that is done, particularly if it acts as a screening mechanism for expulsions or redundancies.
Should institutions seek specific permission before conducting research which goes beyond the simple purpose of the institution?

For me, the researcher is ultimately responsible for making sure that the research is ethical, and it goes without saying if they’re outside of an institution. There are plenty of guidelines and resources out there that they can refer to in order to identify their project as ethical.

Thomas - I’m not sure if you got an answer regarding who has to pass ethical clearance, but at Boston Children’s Hospital Boston (my previous affiliation), every single scientist who was involved in a experimental project needed to go through the ethical clearance process. Depending on their level of involvement in the project and the level of data that they would be working with (identified or de-identified data), they would have to complete certain training courses. It makes sense to me - you need a process to make sure that the people covered by ethical review are actually aware of the ethical issues that they may have to deal with.

Children’s guidelines: http://www.childrenshospital.org/research-and-innovation/office-of-clinical-investigation/guidelines-and-policies.

My institution has separate ethical review boards for each department, and the college as a whole has a general ethics policy here. The Guide to Good Research Practices mentioned in that policy is here. It’s very broad, and like many other situations I can think of there’s a lot of discretion reserved to individual groups. Something that might raise an eyebrow in the Genetics department’s ethical review might not be picked up by the same experiment done in CS, simply because there are different people involved.

As it happens, we don’t do a lot of human research in my department, so there aren’t many things that require that level of ethical review. (For departments that work with animals, there are separate sets of guidelines.)

Interestingly, if I were to put together a study using publicly available human data sets, I wouldn’t need to submit my proposal to an IRB.

Thanks Melissa!

I’ve noticed that in institutions or units of any sort that work closely with children ethical procedures are a lot tighter (which makes complete sense). Secondly, biomedical institutions also tend to have very explicit ethical procedures.

I think the idea of a training course in ethics is superb. I’d love to have one that deals with South African institutions and ethical issues - local context always helps, I find.

Yes just reading the University of Cape Town’s ethics code, I wonder how one might deal with (or whether you have to get clearance for) research involving public datasets.

The OU Ethics Principles for Research Involving Human Participants is already linked on the OpenResearch course page for this question.
Noteworthy – Openness and integrity is a key principle and is closely linked to another key principle on protection from harm:
• Deception or covert data collection is included in the policy – it is allowed in certain circumstances for institutional research, with the researcher entirely responsible for making a case for it and doing risk management if such data collection methods are used.
• The principal on Confidentiality is interesting as the duty of confidentiality is not absolute in law, so although researchers are bound by the policy to respect and preserve confidentiality of participants, this can be overridden by exceptional circumstances, such as when someone may be harmed if confidentiality were preserved. In my view this reinforces the necessity for a thorough risk assessment (which the policy requires) so researchers are completely aware of the potential harm or pitfalls associated with their research involving participants and can plan accordingly.
• The policy says that participants should be given opportunities to access the outcomes of the research but it doesn’t give guidance on how or when this could be done. For some institutional research, where selected data is kept closely confidential for commercial or other unpublished reasons, it would seem that some outcomes cannot be shared openly. The policy does not specify if this would be made clear to participants when they first participate – ie they might be told that ‘we can tell you x about the outcomes, but will not be able to reveal y’.

I agree, and to me this means that for any researcher familiarity with the policies and procedures of the research ethics code at their institution is essential. Also not being afraid to ask the questions of those who have set the policies on how often the code is reviewed and revised in the light of law changes or emerging practices such as open research.

I don’t currently work in an institution, but I am glad to be made aware of codes of ethics and will research for more.
Up to certain level, a researcher has to rely upon common sense, but once work becomes research, the ethical methodologies are surely one of the criteria which verifies it.