It is not often, as a middle aged academic, that I get to feel like James Bond – but there is something about research ethics committees that drives me in that direction. I might appear dull and staid, but to the research ethics bureaucrats I am a front line operative doing the job in hand (with or without Walther PPKs and vodka martinis) and dealing with messiness that they simply do not understand.
Unfortunately, when it comes to research ethics committees the medics got there first. Now I can quite see that if part of your research involves chopping someone’s leg off or denying them treatment which might cure them then you most certainly need to get written consent and the implications of participation need to be clearly and repeatedly explained. What I do not see, however, is that the expectations for medical research are a ‘gold standard’ which should then be applied willy-nilly to every single project under scrutiny. My own work is probably about the least harmful you can imagine. I spent last year conducting an ethnography of a computer games company, watching the way people learned skills and the way they were managed. No under-18s, no members of vulnerable groups, no illegal activities. Everyone was told who I was in advance by the company, both company and individuals would be anonymised in any publications and before observing anyone I would ask their permission. So far so unexceptional, and the only problem I anticipated was whether informants would be happy to accept Krispy Kreme doughnuts in exchange for being mithered at work.
Enter the ethics committee. They insisted on full written consent from every worker in the offices (about 250), every delivery person and – on the occasions I went off for a chat with informants – every barrista who served us coffee and waitress who brought us pizzas (no, seriously). An extensive correspondence later, since that would have effectively made an ethnography impossible, they grudgingly agreed to let me proceed and turned their attention to other social science projects. They queried the relevance of research into trade unions and advised that researcher to take steps to ensure their personal safety (because union members are sooooo dangerous), issued formal guidance that interviews over 30 minutes required special permission from the committee and, in the famed Battle of PostModernist Hill, decided that auto-ethnography should be barred.
Some of the discussions were simply silly, but others raise serious issues. There may be perfectly good reasons for opposing research into trade unions or auto-ethnography and quite a few academics have successfully carved out careers writing books about these things, but I cannot see how ethics enter into it. It might be self-indulgent to do an auto-ethnography but it is hardly unethical. It also flies in the face of existing guidance. Most professional bodies, including the BSA and the ESRC, have produced guidelines which ensure ethical research in practical ways. The criteria social science projects should be judged against are vastly different to those used by our medically qualified colleagues, as they should be, but they are no less ethical. It would be nice if institutional panels accepted this, otherwise as the panel’s James Bond I might just remember that two kills result in double-0 status.