Friday, 27 February 2015

Please review the ethics of human ethics review

Human ethics review panels are the worst. Designed to prevent atrocities like Tuskegee, they then metastasised: any time your research could possibly involve a human subject, there are a billion forms to fill in. So it's usually easiest just to avoid doing field research.

U Queensland's Paul Frijters didn't avoid doing field research. He sent actors out onto Brisbane buses with not quite enough money on their fare cards to see whether drivers were more likely to give white passengers a pass.

Adam Creighton and Julie Hare write in The Australian on what happened next.
Following national media interest arising from a media release published by the university in March 2013, Professor Frijters was told his research was “banned”.

“The university then proceeded to pursue charges of research misconduct against me, eventually (demoting) me from professor to associate professor in March 2014 and threatening me with dismissal if I did more research like this,” he said.

The demotion was later overturned following an independent inquiry showing the university’s own processes had failed and that punishment meted out was “overly harsh and inappropriately punitive”.

Vice-chancellor Peter Hoj yesterday said the university would not comment.

A spokeswoman for Brisbane City Council, which owns the Brisbane bus company, said the research was not “authorised” by it and it was published without the council’s knowledge.
Here's the original paper.

Here's the Guardian, whose story makes it a bit clearer why human ethics review panels are the worst - simply the worst bunch of Vogons ever to be imposed on academics working in the social sciences.
The university then banned further publication or promotion of the study on suspicion that Frijters not sought the necessary approval from the university ethics committee.
The university was concerned there was no “voluntary informed consent” from the bus drivers or “gatekeeper approval from the Brisbane city council”.
You cannot test whether a bunch of Brisbane bus drivers are racist by first asking them for permission to test whether they are racists.

Here's the kind of ethicist from whom Frijters would have needed to have sought permission:
Clinical ethics expert Dr Andrew Crowden told Guardian Australia that Frijters had made a “common mistake” by underestimating the ethical risks of his own research.
But the university had “shared the mistake” when his department signed off on the study, which showed a “systemic failure” that UQ had chosen not to address despite Crowden’s recommendations in response to the case.
Nicholas Gruen is dead right:
Economist Nicholas Gruen said the case was a “terrible” example of how universities dealt with ethics considerations as “a matter of bureaucratic arse covering and the avoidance of any kind of discomfort for anyone”.
“This sorry saga illustrates the way ethics approvals [are] genuinely strangling all kinds of research initiatives,” he said.
“Essentially the entire ethics procedure is an attempt to avoid anything that might make anyone squeamish or uncomfortable. Of course good research, certainly in social sciences will often do that.”

Update: Helen Andrews points to some more thorough work on IRB horrors:

1 comment:

  1. It looks like there is a far bigger research paper lurking on the efficacy of human ethics reviewers (has that ever been studied), than the original research objective.