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Institutional Ethics for Research in a New Academy

amysquareI’ll be around Morehead City this year for the Big Rock Blue Marlin Tournament, finally with some post-dissertation time on my hands – and decided to finish a project looking at shifting baselines. Part of this investigation is to find out what people think about trends in the tournament since its creation in 1957 – fish size, difficulty in catching one, etc. It’s a small project involving a one-page survey but I decided that since ethics are important, I would run the survey through an institutional review board anyway.

Problem is, since I am post-dissertation and this is an independent project, I no longer fit into any of the categories of people who should be reviewed by my institution’s IRB: student, faculty, research staff, or administrator. I’ve heard this complaint from other community groups hoping to deploy surveys or get volunteers to evaluate their experiences in citizen science, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it firsthand. So if one does desire ethical oversight outside of an academic institution, where does one turn? I have a few thoughts, not of them tested, but I’d like to see the world of ethics expand beyond its institutional boundaries to match the expanding scientific boundaries of public science.

Before I delve into potential changes, let’s review why I like IRB and continue to seek its expertise. I’ve written on this before, concluding that IRB with all its faults makes you stop and think during research design about ethics. It’s meant to protect sensitive information (think fishing routes, locations of endangered plants, detailed personal histories, etc) and, fundamentally, the groups of people who volunteer their time and effort for the sake of science. The IRB strengthens and protects the relationship between scientists and the public, hopefully keeping a healthy, open, and trusting dialogue. But it only works if everyone does it. Which means that everyone has to have access to the resources like the IRB to implement ethical oversight.

a wealth of information can be learned from festival-goer surveys, but requires the same pause for ethics as more risky human subjects research, photo by author

a wealth of information can be learned from festival-goer surveys, but requires the same pause for ethics as more risky human subjects research, photo by author

The easiest means of extending the reach of IRB would be to make a category for university affiliates. This might include recent graduates continuing research (like me), colleagues, and community partners. Basically, this would extend responsibility of the IRB to the wider network of academic thinkers affiliated with any university. Officially recognizing these wider circles might also go a long way to recognizing their value and role at the university. As of now, independent researchers can fall between the cracks because the sometimes-helpful bureaucracy of administrations does not know they need to protect them.

Second, since the demands of ‘public science’, as I’ll call it, may differ from those strictly in the world of academia, a second type of IRB might be better. A community-based cooperative IRB to match community-based science? Currently, the ethics checks occur at the publication stage of research – peer-reviewed, academic journals are supposed to ask for IRB certification if there are human subjects involved. This checkpoint, though, is outdated for a number of reasons. Interdisciplinary work now means that human subjects research finds its way into journals with no protocol for checking IRB review. Some science with human subjects never makes it into journals at all – instead, finding its way into community newsletters, political testimony, or the grey literature. Both of these cases, plus new ones our developing scientific society will throw at us in the coming decades, exemplify the need for a more flexible checkpoint system.

The third option takes a step away from IRB altogether, instead demanding that anyone participating in social science research (research with human subjects outside the clinical arena) must follow a code of ethics. The American Association of Anthropology recently codified one and voted it into effect last November. The task force that compiled and structured the AAA code calls themselves the “Taskforce for Comprehensive Ethics”. I think they’re on to something. Ethics need to extend beyond the IRB both institutionally and in scope. As a result, following this code of ethics essentially demands you sit down with the community you’re researching and collectively write a context-specific agreement sensitive to both community and researcher needs (protecting both the participants and the researcher, a step that is sorely needed). This type of professional affiliation would also help connect research communities worldwide and unite ethics efforts globally. In the end, I think this kind of active embracing of ethics will yield the best result for all parties.

In any case, I think this is a conversation that needs to occur, especially as social science is more heartily embraced as needed information in decision-making. While there may be no one-size-fits-all solution to ethics, we need to think outside the box to match the changing ethical landscape to the dynamics of social scientists. That will involve casting as wide as net a possible to make sure we capture both people in the academic pipeline and the increasing number of researchers that hop in and out of that traditional trajectory.