Science - January 17, 2013

Ethical or not?

Wageningen UR has had an ethical committee for social science research for two years now, but depressingly little use is made of it in practice. And that needs to change, says committee chair Michiel Korthals. He thinks it should be compulsory for social scientists to run their plans past the committee.

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Scientists who want to carry out experiments with animals have to contend with the Animal Experiments Committee as research on or using animals is subject to stringent mandatory ethical rules. The same applies to medical research on human subjects. But what about the social sciences? Is there such a thing as an ethical way of conducting a survey? Yes, there is. And since the start of 2011 it has also been possible to have social science research assessed by an ethical committee. Michiel Korthals, the man behind this and professor of Applied Philosophy, has spent two years chairing the Social Sciences Ethics Committee (SEC). A report by Korthals appeared recently, reviewing the first two SEC years.
You say very emphatically in the report that it is thanks to the work of the SEC that Wageningen UR has not had a media scandal like the VUmc hospital (where TV cameras were allowed into the operation theatre). What do you mean by that?
'The analogy is that the VUmc didn't make use of informed consent. The people being filmed were not asked for their permission. That issue played a role too in several studies I assessed for ethical clearance. In these studies, the researchers didn't want to ask everyone for informed consent, for instance in research with illiterate subjects who can't just be given a form to sign. I said no way. You need to come up with something so that illiterate people can also clearly give their consent. It is your duty to explain the purpose of the study, ask for their consent and tell them they are free to stop participating if they want.'
Can the SEC prevent a Stapel-like fraud case at Wageningen UR?
'No. The SEC assessment takes place before a research project starts. We can't check whether the statistical analysis of the data was correct of if the study has even been carried out. There is a fundamental difference between an ethical assessment and an assessment as to whether the study satisfies the criteria for scientific research. So we are also not concerned with the question of whether you should do a particular study in the first place. For instance, should you carry out social science research in a dictatorship like North Korea with its human rights abuses? I can't make that judgement in this committee as to whether something is socially, scientifically or ethically relevant. That is really a question for the entire university. It is about your mission, doing socially responsible research and that kind of thing.'
In your report, you express surprise that the committee has not yet been asked to assess any LEI studies. The implication is that this is connected to the influence of the private sector on that research.
'That is not what I mean. I'm not suggesting that the private sector applies lower ethical standards. Scientists approach our committee because a journal, a funding organization or a country explicitly asks for ethical clearance. Businesses don't do that. The private sector asks for reports, not peer-reviewed articles. Incidentally, the committee does intend starting a debate next year with the DLO institutes about the influence of the private sector on research.'
The SEC has assessed 30 research proposals over the past two years. That's not many. And its recommendations are not even binding. So basically the SEC has no standing. Isn't that frustrating?
'Yes, I do get irritated by this. As far as I'm aware we are the only university in the Netherlands with an SEC. There is hardly any legislation framing the ethics for social science research, whereas there is for medical research and animal experiments. What is more, SEC advice is not mandatory.'
Should it be?
'I've said from the start that you should make it mandatory and the recommendations should be binding. The status must be clear. At present we issue ethical clearances but they don't really mean anything. In principle you might just as well give an approval. But the graduate schools don't want to go any further. They want the SEC to just give advice, not a judgement. That really annoys me. The whole point is the ethical clearance, a stamp of approval. It shouldn't be the case that a graduate school can simply ignore it.'
Ethical awareness starts with having ethics in the teaching programme. Does Wageningen UR take ethical education sufficiently seriously?
'We are gradually getting more education on this subject. But progress is slow. My group is small and we are already overloaded. It is impossible for us to provide more teaching. About half the Bachelor's students get a three-credit course on the Philosophy of Science and Ethics. Each year, we give a six-credit optional course on ethics to about 60 Master's students. Also, some graduate schools offer ethics courses to PhD students on a voluntary basis. But the number of students is minimal: a couple of dozen per course out of a total of more than one thousand PhD students. That's not much.'
Shouldn't ethics be a standard part of the teaching programme for all students?
'Yes, I agree entirely. A course dealing with the Code of Conduct should be a standard part of the Master's and PhD programmes. You don't even need to do it in the form of lectures. The key is awareness: how to tackle research in such a way that you get the ethically best approach. Students should be aware from day one, when they arrive and start doing interviews, how to deal with that ethically. If you are doing interviews, it is important not just to ask the right questions but also to treat your respondents decently.'
The Ethical Top 3  
Where do social scientists make the most blunders in terms of ethics?  
1. Informed consent. An absolute necessity at all times and in all places, according to Korthals.
2. Debriefing. The requirement to give the participants feedback about the study afterwards. Korthals: 'You can often resolve that simply by creating a website, for example. You develop a relationship of trust with a respondent and you need to cement that. The next researcher who comes along mustn't hear "Oh yes, I was interviewed before but I never heard anything more about it".'
3. Video recordings. Making video recordings of people for research purposes is a thorny issue. Korthals: 'Image and sound recordings are potentially at odds with privacy and security. But I don't have the answer to that yet. We are still debating this issue.' 

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