Law research and ethics clearance

Thanks to one of my colleagues for sharing this interesting discussion from Inside Story about ethics clearance (by Gillian Cowlishaw).

The discussion in the article concerns the difficulties social science researchers (which includes law) face in complying with ethics clearance rules and ethics committees that may not be well suited to the research methodologies typically undertaken by law researchers.  While the story focuses on ethics clearance in Australia, it is likely that law researchers (including PhD students) in other parts of the world face similar demands, many of which may also be irrelevant or inapposite to their research.

The article certainly accords with my own experience – even as I recognise the good intentions and hard work of those serving on ethics committees. I am, however, quite pessimistic that the present ethics clearance system will improve. Rather, I expect that it will continue to be ever more burdensome and far removed from the world of legal research.

Any thoughts/responses?

By Colin Picker


One thought on “Law research and ethics clearance

  1. It’s always a terrible thing if research is blocked by irrelevant or ignorant demands from know-it-all idiots with inappropriate powers. But the Inside Story article simply asserts that that is happening, without providing any explanation of the assertion.

    What ‘queries about method and scientific merit’ were raised by the ethics committee in case of the ‘younger colleague’? What reasons did the ethics committee give for rejecting that person’s application three times? How much delay was caused? What were the ‘unanswerable questions’ put to the PhD candidate? If they had nothing to do with ethics or her project, then why did they lead her to abandon her work in despair? How common are these experiences? What were the backgrounds of the people on the committees? What review structures were available? What were the studies about? And why didn’t the author give these details? (The comments to the article were far more interesting because they gave actual examples, albeit none seemed to suggest that these seemingly irrelevant questions were anything more than annoyances, not any sort of barrier to research.)

    Instead, what the writer chooses to tell us is that the ethics committees are raising concerns about research that has already been approved in a competitive grant application and have been worked through with the researcher’s colleagues. In other words, why should there be further scrutiny if the project is funded and reviewed by the researcher’s peers? I think the answer to that is obvious. The writer complains that experienced researchers are offended by questions about their ethics, which also speaks for itself. And the writer also makes the well known point that current human research ethics rules were developed from a medical research model. That’s true, but the model is also a flexible one; there are no rigid rules in my experience. Certainly, there’s no rule against disturbing people. The main requirement is that all risks are assessed against benefits, and managed in advance wherever possible.. The key to the process is ensuring that the committees that act as independent checks on funders and peers have the experience they need. If the writer’s committee is reviewing anthropological research without any experience in anthropological research methods, then that’s a problem with the writer’s committee, not ethics review in general.

    Personally, I’d love to see more discussion of the problems that ethics clearance causes for legal research. I’ve been through ethics clearance for my own interview-based research and I appreciated the input. But I’ve sat on various ethics committees too, meaning that I both knew the ropes and have a bias. Colin, what was the experience you had that accords with the Inside Story article?


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