ETHICS GUIDELINES: LETTING THE POWERFUL OFF THE HOOK, HANGING SUBORDINATES OUT TO DRY
I'm an ethics bureaucrat - a lowly one at the moment, a member of my departmental ethics committee. I don't like the job, but I stick with it because it keeps me in touch with a system that has to change. The better I understand the system, the better my chances of helping to bring about a change.
In fact, the system changes all the time, sometimes for the better, but mostly for the worse. The most frequent changes for the worse come, not from Canada's Tri-Council Guidelines, which I criticized in an earlier blog entry and a research paper, but from well-intentioned local ethics bureaucrats who over-interpret the guidelines. The other day an ethics application crossed my desk and I spotted a change that I believe originated locally.
Ethics application forms contain checklists of things that must be included in an application. A checklist item I've never noticed before requires that a researcher doing interviews allow the interviewee to withdraw consent for the interview, not only before it begins or while it is underway, but at any time before publication. This is a really bad idea, because it invites and authorizes people in positions of power to manipulate data.
Suppose I'm interviewing a minister or a mayor, and he lets slip a fact that constitutes a crucial link in a chain of evidence pointing to corrupt practices or bad policy. After the interview, the politician reflects on what he said and realizes to his horror that he has just unmasked himself. He calls his lawyer and to his relief, the lawyer says, "Not to worry. University ethics guidelines allow you to wipe the record clean. If the professor doesn't remove the evidence from her draft publication, you can see to it that she's censured."
In other words, the ethics guidelines allow politicians to induce researchers to produce dishonest scholarship and forces scholars to comply.
When I objected to the checklist item, I was told that it constituted a necessary protection for vulnerable people - for example clients of a community development organization in a low-income neighbourhood, or lower-level civil servants. Wrong again. Although the guideline provides far too much protection for politicians and top public servants, the legalistic protection it offers people in a subordinate position is not nearly good enough.
Researchers often get valuable help from well-informed people in subordinate positions. If they provide information that proves inconvenient to people in power, they are highly vulnerable to reprisals. Relying on people to withdraw things they've said as their only protection against reprisals doesn't really protect them very much at all, because, at the time of the interview, and even afterwards, they have no way of knowing how their remarks might be contextualized in a future study.
It should be the researcher's obligation to protect informants from reprisals, and the researcher's responsibility if she fails to do so. The onus shouldn't be on respondents to withdraw their remarks (although obviously they should have the right not to respond to questions, and to demand anonymity).
Possibly our local ethics administrators have found a paragraph in the Tri-Council Guidelines that they believe justifies their addition to the checklist, or maybe they just invented it. Either way, it's both too good and not good enough.
Research ethics guidelines are coming under increasingly critical scrutiny in the United States. Some samples of a growing literature:
Philip Hamburger, The New Censorship: Institutional Review Boards. Chicago: University of Chicago, Public Law Working Paper No. 95, May 2005. Available from the Social Science Research Network.
The Center for Advanced Study, The Illinois White Paper: Improving the System for Protecting Human Subjects: Counteracting IRB "Mission Creep", November, 2005. Available on the web site of the University of Illinois College of Law.
Excellent ongoing discussion of American research ethics guidelines may be found at Zachary M. Schrag's Institutional Review Blog.