Be careful what you wish for…

I was rather saddened last week by the comment from a Pakistani colleague who wanted to know how to set up an ethics committee in their research organization so they could be the first in that country to have one. It bears out my comments on the way in which these institutions are the product of hegemonic processes that are promoting what my friends in organization studies call ‘isomorphism’. What this says is that, in a competitive field, organizations are driven to model themselves on the most successful, whether or not the results are appropriate to the niche that they actually occupy.

So our colleague does not suggest that Pakistan has a particular problem with social research ethics, nor is it proposed that there has been some scandal that might justify this kind of intervention. The vision seems to have much more to do with achieving a first-mover advantage and getting international recognition. But then we can ask: “international recognition from whom?”

I have been working extensively over the last year with colleagues from France, Italy and Germany, none of which countries have adopted this kind of regulatory system, to figure out how best to protect the independence of their social science research and avoid the fate of, for example, colleagues in Ireland who have had such a system imposed with no apparent justification or explanation. The results are not progressive: important areas of ignorance emerge because it is too much trouble to clear the process or the findings might be troublesome for the institution; knowledge gaps are filled by less professional investigators or by ungrounded advocacy; students are unable to practise the skills we painfully teach them. Personally, I would have thought that Pakistan was a country in need of a free social science that can speak truth to powers of all kinds. Ethical regulation is more likely to be an obstacle than a support in that mission. Be careful what you wish for, Ayesha.

Robert Dingwall

Robert Dingwall is a consulting sociologist, providing research and advisory services particularly in relation to organizational strategy, public engagement and knowledge transfer. He is co-editor of the SAGE Handbook of Research Management.

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Ayesha Khan
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Thanks for your comment, Robert. Actually our effort to do something about ethics review is related to the fact that we suddenly were told by a research donor that we could not publish our research findings because we did not have an ethics review of a health/social science related study. Our experience thus far suggests that these reviews have a lot to do with suppressing research findings rather than encouraging better research. We though we would set up our own board so that medical review committees do not represent the only kind of ethics review process available in Pakistan. It… Read more »

Robert Dingwall
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Thanks, Ayesha. This is a nice example of the tyranny of the biomedical model in its application to social science research. Actually, you would not have any problems publishing your findings in many social science journals, unless your sponsor is actually forbidding this, because they have not taken on the policing role adopted by biomedical journals. If you look at typical sociology papers, they rarely make reference to ethical review, although, of course, editors do retain discretion to refuse publication if they think work has been unethical, as a matter of their own professional judgement. Having said this, if you… Read more »

Anonymous
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Anonymous

Okay, that sounds interesting. Can you think off-hand of some social science journals that do not require the ethics review process? Yes, we have experienced ethical regulation in our context thus far as a control mechanism, but we would hope to protect social sciences (if possible) by developing our own ethics review process. Ayesha

Robert Dingwall
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Unless anyone has other information, I cannot currently think of any sociology or socio-legal journals that require evidence of ethical review. These are the fields that I publish and edit in but I cannot vouch for others. If there are some out there, perhaps we can ‘name-and-shame’…

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