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Section 3 (Chapters 3.1 & 3.5), Glossary and Revisions to Section 5 National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research, 2007 submission

ID: 
10
Personal Details
First Name: 
Graham
Last Name: 
Gourlay
Specific Comments
Comments: 
2. Chapter 3.1

Chapter 3.1:  The elements of research

Introduction

I would like to commend your advisors and drafters of the proposed revisions for possibly hearing my earlier plea - if not, anticipating it – and, in any case, constructively addressing the concerns I expressed that my research project design had to be abandoned because my university’s legal advice was that a researcher intervening in a workplace team meeting involved in shaping the workplace climate could not step out of their researcher role and provide in-the-moment, appropriate, support – exercising a supportive duty of care - towards a person who might become emotional.

The revision proposed:

… ‘Where a researcher has other professional skills (for example, counselling or clinical care) that become relevant to the relationship with a participant, the researcher needs to decide, when continuing the research, whether: (a) it is ethically acceptable to exercise those skills; or (b) to refer that participant to another professional.

Researchers have a duty to inform participants whenever they are acting in a professional rather than a research role.’

-        seems to me to cover my situation perfectly.

 (Though I would prefer to see the words ‘, appropriate or necessary’ added after the words ‘: (a) it is ethically acceptable …’.)

 I believe it is unethical, unconscionable and probably against the common law for a facilitator to ignore, and not reach out in a supportive, professional, caring, compassionate manner, and offer to a participant, who becomes emotional during and group activity, some compassionate, pastoral support.  It is, after all, also common, human decency to do so.  Furthermore, in my experience such an action in support of an emotional person is not counselling – and is a long way away from being counselling, when done by a trained, experienced leader of group processes and dynamics.

2. Chapter 3.1

Element 3:  Consent

But the proposed revision has ‘missed an important bus’ in this area of consent, in that it fails to explicitly recognise that it may be appropriate for consent requirements to be addressed differently for different entity levels in a group or an organisational situation.  ‘Informed consent’ is one of the core issues that a new approach needs to deal with differently – with added scope for multi-level, divergent application of the concept in organisational settings, to cater for situations where the individual is required by the organisation to be part of a group. 

Background - Context

To a mind steeped in the regulatory ethics governance paradigm, it is unthinkable, verging on coercion*, to expect members of a workgroup to participate in their workgroup’s climate-shaping intervention activity, without their having individually given their ‘informed consent’.  (*I’m obviously still chafing – resentful - from my HREC Chair’s dressing down for and accusation of being “coercive”; I’m possibly the least coercive person by nature you have encountered!)

But the concept of ‘informed consent’, while a cornerstone of the regulatory ethics governance paradigm, can be problematic for certain types of organisational research (Coomber, 2002; Pollock, 2012). 

Illustrating the problem

This is best demonstrated by the following scenario:

An employer may expect or require employees to participate in regular workgroup meetings for a variety of reasons – information sharing, team building, performance feedback, problem solving, group cohesion and/or relationship-building, etc.  However, if a researcher proposes an intervention that is to be executed in the milieu of a team meeting – say, for example, the team members are to work on shaping the climate of the group – the regulatory research ethics regime requires that each member be given an opportunity to sign an ‘informed consent’ document that gives them the right to withdraw from the routine workgroup meetings while the intervention is taking place.

Furthermore, this requirement of the ethics regime also gives the employee the right to withdraw from the intervention – and from team meetings whenever the intervention is being pursued – at any stage, throughout the intervention.

The practical reality, however, is that if the research involves working with the members of a workgroup when they meet at, say, a team meeting, that might, for example, involve some form of group process intervention for shaping the workgroup’s culture or climate, it is a basic requirement for (i) climate- or culture-shaping, (ii) the research’s integrity and (iii) it’s effectiveness, that every member of the workgroup should participate in that group process (health permitting). 

A management would and should reasonably expect every member of the workgroup to participate in the group’s climate/culture-shaping activities.  If one member removes themself from the workgroup meetings, it is a different workgroup.  The integrity of the climate/culture-shaping is then compromised.

It also should be borne in mind that some managements require, as a condition or ground-rule of employment, that every workgroup member participate actively in their workgroup meetings and activities.

By way of analogy, consider a research proposal to understand the effects of mindfulness sessions on student relationships, bullying, harassment and performance in schools.  The school administration wants to test whether mindfulness classes, being a regular part of the curriculum, can reduce these negative behaviours and relationships and improve student performance.  Is it OK that the research ethics governance requirements insist that every child’s parents must consent to their child’s participation and potentially be able to exempt their child from attending that class, in the face of the school’s commitment to testing the effectiveness of mindfulness classes?

What is going on here?

By creating, imposing and enforcing this right (for employees not to participate and/or not to continue participating in their team climate-shaping conversations), the regulatory ethics regime is overriding the employer’s policy, expectations and/or requirements, as well as undermining, compromising and denying the possibility of researchers working on the effectiveness of workgroup climate-shaping activities.

This is a situation, therefore, where the requirements and potentially advantageous outcome of the research project and/or the requirements of and potentially advantageous outcome to the sponsoring organisation are in conflict with the traditional consent requirement that each participant must be notified of their right to consent or withhold consent to their participation in a research project or activity and also given the right to withdraw their consent at any time. 

As observed by Kimmel (2007), the individual’s interest in being protected by the concept of ‘informed consent’ may overlap and be in conflict with the employer’s wish to have all workgroup members participate in a climate-shaping intervention.  Giving primacy to the protection of the individual’s interest could be undermining of the potential benefits, for all workgroup members and the organisation, of their participation in the climate-shaping.  

Allowing the members of that workgroup to be able to with-hold or with-draw their consent and thus to absent themselves from the group’s formation processes is, therefore, inconsistent with - indeed, is destructive of - the integrity and potential effectiveness of the research into the shaping and maintenance of the workgroup climate.  (It is also reasonable to suggest that non-participation in such a group meeting is inconsistent with the best interests of the individual, the group, the organisation and society if a positive, high performance, collaborative culture is to be shaped and nurtured there).

My proposal

While it is appropriate that the consent of an organisation, of a workgroup and of its leadership should be necessary to a research project intervention taking place in a workgroup (at its regular workgroup meetings), where the intervention is about shaping the climate or culture of that workgroup and the participation of every group member is fundamental, essential even to the activity and the outcome, it should not also be necessary to obtain the consent of individual members of that workgroup to their individual participation in the intervention. 

Nor is it appropriate, responsible or sensible to allow, let alone facilitate, workgroup members to withdraw from participating in their group’s climate-shaping activities.

Research ethics must surely be applied in such a flexible, respectful way that the potential benefits to individuals, their group and their organisation are not undermined by some mandatory demand of the ethics governance regime.

Kimmel (2007) expresses the problem well:

“Research participants in organizations cannot be approached as independent individuals … because (they, along with their managers and other corporate stakeholders operate) within an interdependent framework of rights and responsibilities.  It is likely that these individuals will have overlapping interests that sometimes are in conflict”.

Conclusion

This conflict - between the research ethics requirements and research integrity requirements -  of overlapping interests is the nub of the challenge facing this element of research ethics governance that needs to be addressed.  It demonstrates where and how the current dominant paradigm is failing to encourage and facilitate, let alone deliver, the types of organisational research that people are calling out for and, as evidence suggests, the world needs.

This requirement (of the research ethics regime) is preventing applied research being done in workplaces, where it is a requirement - central to the research design - that every member of that workgroup be involved in the group dynamics. ‘Informed consent’ in this situation creates a blind-spot or a disconnect between professional paradigms.  It represents a disservice to - is potentially undermining of – research and improvements in human well-being.

General Comments
Comments: 

The research ethics paradigm is the underlying problem:  The proposed revisions are not tackling that (as far as I can see)

The paradigm itself is the core problem

It is not at all unusual to see in the academic literature concerns expressed about the paradigm that shapes the thinking and approach that is manifest in the current, dominant regulatory research ethics regime.  For me, it is a top-down paradigm, the distinguishing features of which are essentially control and risk management.

It has been recognised for many years, particularly among sociology scholars, that since the regulatory research ethics paradigm grew from the need to control bio-medical or clinical research, it has had adverse impacts on - unintended consequences for – human-centred or social research (Hammersley and Traianou, 2014; Truman, 2011; Wiles et al., 2007).

Hammersley (2010) states that the regulatory research ethics governance paradigm is ‘strangling’ certain types of research and is causing harm.  Melrose (2011) refers to the paradigm itself causing humanity to miss out on potential benefits. 

They are not alone in expressing concerns about the current paradigm:

“The need for regulation of research is clear. However, the bureaucratic complexity of research governance has raised concerns that the regulatory mechanisms intended to protect participants now threaten to undermine or stifle the research enterprise, especially as this relates to sensitive topics and hard to reach groups”. (Pollock, 2012)

‘… we need to focus on how to carry out ethically-sensitive research without crippling research innovation and practice with bureaucratic, standardised, and inappropriate monitoring procedures.  Above all, we need to actively resist ethics creep or we may as well give up on researching the experiences of others altogether”. (Reed, 2010)

Understanding why and how the regulatory research ethics paradigm blocks important research: Understanding the problem in more depth

       i.          The paradigm shaping the research design may be incompatible with the research ethics paradigm that is in force

Behaviourally-oriented, climate-shaping researchers are, for example, forced to deal with an ethics paradigm that is grounded in and shaped by a very different paradigm from their own.  The dominant research ethics paradigm is more mechanistic and steeped in the notions of power, authority, risk management, compliance and control than is appropriate for, indeed, hospitable to, the paradigm and dynamics in which they work. 

               “The bio-ethical framework underpinning current regulatory structures is fundamentally at odds with the practice of emergent, negotiated micro-ethics required in qualitative research”. (Pollock, 2012)

The source of the incompatibility has been cogently stated:

“The guidelines (products of the regulatory ethics approach) do not provide any means for helping researchers to explore or address those ethical dilemmas which are inherent to the messy world contained in the social relations of research production”. and

“… (the guidelines are) particularly problematic for researchers working within a participatory paradigm since they add a further set of barriers to the creation of democratic knowledge whereby people who are the subject of research production can influence how knowledge about them is conceived, produced and disseminated”.  Hales (2000)

Schein would well appreciate the problem because he understood the need for people to interact to shape a climate or culture.  He says, in his Preface to Ashkanasy et al. (2000), that ‘culture can only be created in a group of people through their sharing in a learning process of what works for them, over some period of time’.  The regulatory ethics paradigm gets in the way of the climate-shaping intervention researcher facilitating such a shared conversation and learning process.

The contention here is that it is inevitable that critically important climate- and culture-shaping research will continue to be resisted and blocked by the existing regulatory ethics paradigm, if that paradigm is not challenged and changed.

      ii.          The research ethics paradigm is based on the notion of control; stifling innovation, disrespecting and distrusting humans – It is personally, philosophically and ethically troubling to some

The regulatory, bio-medically-based, research ethics paradigm that has long held (and retains) hegemony over the governance of research ethics, is grounded in the need for control and to anticipate and manage, according to a pre-approved plan, every possible risk.  It is resolutely resistant to - and therefore blocks - researchers from working with emotions and participating in group processes. 

The paradigm is, effectively, blocking researchers from intervening in, exploring, testing and experiencing the shaping of organisational culture and work unit climate.  (Could this be one reason why climate-shaping has not been widely pursued as a strategy for preventing workplace bullying?)

Having witnessed the human pain and suffering and the economic damage – more specifically, perhaps, the opportunities and benefits foregone – as a result of the leadership, management and HRM professions having been psychically locked into the prison of the ‘control’ mindset for many decades through most of the 20th century, I am sickened to have to deal with and work in a paradigm that is characterised, at root, by ‘control’ and ‘risk management’ thinking.  These are widely regarded and experienced as low grade, demeaning, dispiriting, debilitating, anxiety-generating human activities.  Engaging in them is disrespectful to self and to others.

It is soul-destroying to experience and watch my researcher colleagues and their academic supervisors going through seemingly endless hours, weeks and months of second-guessing what the Ethics Committee may stumble over, query, seek re-assurance about, require re-wording of, etc.  This is a waste of human energy and time. 

Such ‘second-guessing’ – trying to anticipate and get into the minds of others - is the hall-mark of political behaviour, which is the opposite of authentic behaviour.  It is therefore an activity or use of human time and energy that is antagonistic to our values system and offensive to those of us trained in authentic behaviours, authentic leadership and workplace (executive, behavioural) coaching.

People who engage in this control or risk management thinking and who are encountered in the contemporary workplace are looked down upon.  It is the mindset of a past era; it is the mark of a narrow, limited outlook; lacking imagination and trust in human potential and so is widely disparaged in management, leadership, OD and coaching circles.  It is galling to find it rife – the dominant mindset - in the regime that controls much of the world’s research.

     iii.          The problem with ‘risk management’

The regulatory ethics paradigm requires comprehensive re-assurance being provided to the governance body in the form of risk management protocols or pre-approved scripts setting out how any potential situation involving emotional expression will be handled. 

It is, of course, impossible to anticipate and prepare for every eventuality that might arise between humans who are interacting openly, honestly and authentically, in a workplace setting where emotions are welcome and supported. 

A new approach therefore needs to be less obsessive about identifying, obviating or minimising and managing risk; to be less concerned with managing risk and better able to trust the researcher, their training, experience and good sense.

Conclusion

The contention here is that research involving emotion-embracing, group process-based, climate/culture-shaping interventions is being strangled as a result of the regulatory research ethics regime, which evolved to regulate the conduct of bio-medical research, being applied to the social sciences (Melrose, 2011; Reed, 2010).  

The regulatory ethics regime is proving to be unsuitable for application to much research in the social sciences, where the messiness and dynamics of human emotions, behaviour and relationships are central to intervention and research. 

If research involving climate-shaping activities is potentially important in achieving a reduction in and prevention of negative acts such a workplace bullying, it is vitally important that the regulatory ethics approach be revised so that it is supportive of such research.

What is needed in a contemporary research ethics paradigm: Ideas for new approaches

There are more enlightened, human-centred ways for researchers to approach and reach their objectives in an ethical way.  The time is well past, that those responsible for research ethics regimes should embrace such approaches which forsake the bludgeon and drudgery of the bureaucratic, regulatory mindset that governs by ‘control’ and ‘risk management’.

A new approach to the governance of research ethics needs to be developed that, specifically, better meets the requirements of organisational research involving climate-shaping.  A number of such approaches are canvassed in the scholarly literature and are summarised here.

A contemporary research ethics paradigm needs to;

-        support researchers to interact with emotion-laden processes and dynamics

-        allow for the fact that some of the researchers’ activities and interactions cannot be controlled, anticipated, zealously risk managed or be managed with pre-approved scripted responses, as the regulatory ethics paradigm currently demands

-        embrace the process of ethical research governance.    (That is to say, ethical governance is achieved through the process of doing ethical research; just as a process (organisational) consultant works to improve the functioning of an organisation through the process of consulting.)

Situated, collaborative, dialogical, micro-ethics, process approach

Wiles et al. (2007) points out that there is a need for an ethics regime;

“… to balance a range of sometimes competing interests, such as the aims of the research, what they consider to be the best interests of research participants and the interests of formal or informal gatekeepers”.

Davies (2008) suggests that ethical considerations should be appropriate to and ‘situated’ in the research context.  This ‘situated approach’ to ethics governance infers there is no single correct approach to ethical issues; the ethical framework evolves with the research and is content specific.

This is similar to the approach described by Kimmel (1996) as ‘the collaborative model’, where the researcher-participant relationship is balanced and collaborative; where “both the researcher and the research subjects work together as equals on mutually interesting behavioural research questions”.

This approach also seems similar to that described by (Hales, 2000):

“If the experience of users and research participants who are allowed to actively engage in the research process is used, we might move towards an 'ethics as promoting well-being' model for research. Such a model … can be based on constructive dialogue, rather than one of regulation and fear”.

Against the backdrop of her comprehensive, critical analysis of the issues, impacts and consequences of the regulatory research ethics paradigm, Pollock (2012) points to an alternative approach that embraces the flavours of the postpositivist tradition – which could be termed a ‘situated, collaborative, participatory, well-being, dialogical’, ‘micro ethics’ or ‘process’ approach to ethical compliance.  This seems a more appropriate approach for the social science research outlined in this paper. 

Truman (2011) recognises the need for a situated approach and the crucial role of dialogue in such an alternative approach:

“Professional codes of ethics are the justified norms of the profession. However, the application of those norms is interpretive, and depends on the local and particular features of each situation. ... the interpretive aspect of application is best carried out in a dialogical process ... a partner in dialogue helps us to recognise our unconscious investments, our blind spots, unrecognised feelings, or unchallenged attitudes ... the centrality of ethics ... depends upon the possibility of unconstrained dialogue”. 

Applying such an approach to achieving ethical practice in the intervention outlined earlier in this paper would involve inviting, equipping, authorising and empowering a workgroup that is about to participate in a research project, to inform itself - and to continuously make space for stakeholders to talk reflexibly - about research ethics, expectations and approaches. 

What the new approach might look like

Moving to this more constructivist paradigm involves a shift from the paternalistic, top-down, rule-bound, regulatory compliance and risk management paradigm of current research ethics processes to the active involvement of research participants in the research project.  Through their involvement in surfacing, considering and resolving ethical issues, participants are developing their ownership of the ethics regime governing that particular research project.  Thus a situated ethics regime is created through a self-regulating, bottom up, group activity which is consistent with more respectful, empowering, dynamic, capability-building, social constructivist approaches to learning, organisational change and problem-solving.

It enables solutions and approaches to be tailored to changing and newly emerging needs and perspectives.  The solution to achieving ethical requirements is found in the process of embedding them in the set-up and the day-to-day activities of the project, by equipping and authorising every participant to identify and resolve ethical issues continuously.  Such an approach was called for by Davies (2008), who observed that the regulatory ethics regime can be misleading in that it infers that ethical considerations can be dealt with at a single point in time.  She suggests this is to overlook the ‘processual nature of ethics’ and consequently, that consent to participate in research should be continually gained. 

From their active participation in addressing ethical issues such as deception, confidentiality, privacy, protection from harm and debriefing, participants can be expected to feel more respected, empowered and trusted.  They will be more likely to feel they are being treated as learning, mature, capable adults than as paternalistically-treated, patronised children. The conversation around ethics could be introduced, structured and mediated by the researcher or whoever the group prefers to undertake that role.  Their role is to ensure every member of the group feels authorised, empowered and supported to initiate discussion on any matter relating to ethics at any point in the group’s discussions.

Conclusion

All the above thinking and fresh, alternative approaches to research ethics governance are consistent with Pollock’s discourse on what she calls the micro ethics approach to the governance of research ethics. These alternative approaches to research ethics, being based on empowerment and dialogue, reflect the values of contemporary best practice workplaces, leadership and organisational scholarship.

It is argued that social research is much less intrusive than bio-medical research and thus has much less potential to result in ‘harm’ to participants. There is clearly a difference between subjecting people to medical trials or other intrusive medical interventions and conducting qualitative research in the social sciences.  As Stanley and Wise (2010) state: - “social science does not require the same degree of bureaucratic regulation as medical research”. 

The cost of blocking applied research in workgroups is high.   If this blocker to postpositivist climate-shaping research and participatory interventions is not obviated, the human suffering and lost lives, livelihoods, performance and productivity of organisations and of national economies, will continue to be substantial.

Supporting attachments

Page reviewed: 10 July, 2018