Research ethics and the ‘News of the World’

I was going to write about last week’s decision by the UK Information Commissioner to force the University of East Anglia to release its climate change dataset, which has some worrying implications for the privacy of participants in many UK social research studies.  However, it is hard to resist commenting on the scandal about the investigative practices of journalists on the News of the World, which has finally come to grip the UK media and political elite.  I have frequently questioned the logic that requires social science researchers to be pre-emptively regulated while journalists escape by virtue of arguments about the importance of press freedom in democratic societies.  Are both forms of inquiry not equally vital to the proper functioning of democracy?  Which has the most blatant record of scandalous behaviour, breach of privacy, abuse of subjects, etc?

Now, of course, it would be naive to suggest that journalists are not subject to internal organizational controls of their own, where editors consider the opportunity costs of investing in various story options or review the tactics involved in assembling them.  However, the NoW events do suggest that they are left with a good deal of latitude in a context where considerably less attention has ever been given to the cultivation of an ethical sensibility. Unmasking institutional malpractice and public hypocrisy justifies a good deal of behaviour that becomes clearly unacceptable when applied to ordinary citizens – but where no moral boundary seems to have existed.

Nevertheless, it is striking that, even in the wake of the NoW events, few commentators are calling for the kind of pre-emptive interventions represented by the university research ethics committee/IRB model.  In part, this reflects the widely-shared value attached to free inquiry – even when this is tested almost to destruction.  Let it not be forgotten that the NoW scandal was exposed by the commitment and determination of another media organization, the Guardian, which was ready to invest substantial time and resources in pursuing the story.  Free competition rather than regulation was the basis of calling the NoW to account.

It is one of the paradoxes of our time that the UK government claims to want a market in higher education, while creating systems of micro-management that ensure that state-funded universities will never actually be able to respond to the opportunities that a market would offer.  This micro-management drives the corporatization of UK universities that is marginalizing their academic workforce, although they are the main productive elements in the system.  All the back office functions – HR, Estates, Procurement, Security, Marketing – depend on the academics to generate the revenue that keeps them going.  Would one know this from the culture and structure of most UK universities?  Research regulation is another fetter in the chain that closes the iron cage of contemporary academic life.  In the end, it is a testimony to the low value placed on innovation, discovery and transparency – cutting-edge research is destabilizing and threatening, which is why corporations are constantly being blindsided by garage-based start-ups.  Ironically, the self-directed workgroups that historically marked the UK university are probably closer to the leading models of modern enterprise than the attempt to recast vice-chancellors as Jack Welch-style autocratic CEOs.  If that self-governance cannot be rediscovered, then we must expect the same fate as the corporate behemoths of the 1980s.

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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