Finally, Some Good News in Research Ethics

Call it effect of the “Back to School” time of year, filled with hope for new beginnings, but I am compelled to write a blog entry about something positive in research ethics. I have found the last few months replete with discouraging stories about deception and bad behaviour in the conduct of research. I was more than ready for something inspiring when I happened upon the website for this UK-based program.

R4D (Research for Development)
is a web “portal” for the funded research of the DFID (The Department for International Development) in the UK. The DFID, as part of its mandate, funds research in the developing world and R4D is the mechanism by which the rest of the world can learn about the research that is underway.

Here’s a bit about DFID from their website:

The UK government believes it is in all our interests to help poor people build a better life for themselves. So in 1997 it created a separate government department – the Department for International Development (DFID) – to meet the many challenges of tackling world poverty. It is DFID’s job to make sure every pound of British aid works its hardest to help the world’s poor.

We work in 150 countries and have 2,600 staff, half of whom work abroad. We have headquarters in London and East Kilbride, near Glasgow, and 64 offices overseas.

The R4D website is essentially a repository of information about the kinds of research the DFID funds. It has case studies, a database of information from previous studies, information about the 6 research priorities for DFID (Growth, Sustainable Agriculture, Climate Change, Health, Governance in Challenging Environments, Future Challenges and Opportunities) and published papers from DFID-funded projects.

One such project is the Young Lives project. Young Lives is a long-term international project documenting the changing nature of child poverty in four developing countries: Ethiopia, Peru, India and Vietnam. Following 12 000 children, the investigators on this project are aiming to facilitate the implementation of more relevant policies to aid the world’s poor, especially children and youth. It’s a very worthwhile project and the methods are outlined in incredible detail on the website.

But something else drew me to this project, aside from the obviously meritorious objectives. On their website, they have a section called “Research Ethics”. Here they address the kinds of research ethics issues they have faced in their project and articulate their approaches to these issues, e.g. informed consent, anonymity and compensation. They also include a guidelines paper on the use of photography in research on children. They even provide a link to a working paper by a Young Lives Co-Investigator, Virginia Morrow on The Ethics of Social Research with Children and Families in Young Lives: Practical Experiences

Why is this so positive? Well, it demonstrates that the investigators on the project don’t consider research ethics to be merely a bureaucratic or administrative process to be completed before research can begin or to fulfill the requirements of funding agencies or federal guidelines. Rather, it shows that they consider research ethics to be an important, dynamic and consistent part of conducting research. And while I’m a little hesitant to use the buzzword “transparent” to describe their approach, the fact that anyone can visit their website to read their consent forms or learn more about photography of children in their project, is laudable. It’s clear that novice researchers, graduate students and research assistants on this project are getting valuable and relevant education on how to conduct research with integrity. And to see this approach taken on a project involving such a vulnerable population — poor children — is more than encouraging.

It’s clear that, at least in the eyes of these researchers, research ethics is more than simply an application or stamp of approval. It’s an integral part of a project, from beginning to end. And while that isn’t necessarily a newsflash to most of us, to see research ethics presented as an intrinsic part of the research process is very good news.

~ by Nancy Walton on September 12, 2009.

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