This post was requested by people in the Facebook group of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS – actually an international organisation despite its name). You don’t have to be an NCIS member to join the Facebook group, and if you’re an indie researcher or scholar I would recommend joining one or the other, both if you can. NCIS offers a range of benefits to members including an open access peer reviewed journal, networking opportunities, and grants.
Independent researchers often don’t have access to research ethics committees (aka institutional review boards in the US). These committees and boards are set up by institutions such as universities and health authorities. I studied this as background for my book on research ethics, and found that a minority do try to help researchers work more ethically, but the majority are focused on institutional protection. This post is not about the rights and wrongs of institutional protectionism, so I will just say that I think committees or boards that focus on institutional protection should be called ‘institutional protection committee/board’ not ‘research ethics committee’ or ‘institutional review board’.
I am interested to see that some communities and some organisations are setting up their own systems of ethical review, such that researchers who want to work with them have to satisfy the community or organisation’s ethical requirements. Indeed, I’m delighted to be advising some organisations on how to do this in a way that meets their needs. There is no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to research ethics, and each community and organisation is best placed to figure out what constitutes ethical research practice for them.
There is also, interestingly, an independent research ethics committee: the New Zealand Ethics Committee (NZEC), set up in 2014. NZEC is run by volunteers to provide expert ethical advice for community-based researchers and others without access to an institutional ethics committee or board. Initially it offered its services free of charge, but it proved unexpectedly popular, so it is now charging a negotiable rate while it seeks sustainable funding.
Many professional bodies have their own codes of ethics that independent researchers can follow. I belong to the UK and Ireland Social Research Association (SRA), and my clients often feel reassured when I tell them I follow the SRA’s ethical guidelines. In fact there are loads of free open access research ethics resources online and new ones appear from time to time. I’ve been working on the EU’s PRO-RES project, to create an ethics resource for all non-medical researchers. This is still in development but the website already contains a lot of useful information.
If you’re an independent researcher, you already know your work involves a lot of thinking for yourself. If you want policies and procedures to follow, you either have to find ones you like or write some of your own. The same applies with research ethics. OK, we rarely get the chance to spend days filling in a massive form to be challenged or approved by a committee. It might be showing by now that I’m not fond of the current research governance system, and I think its absence offers an important opportunity for independent researchers: we can do research that is more ethical than research done by institutions. If we choose, we can attend to the ethical aspects of research that research ethics committees rarely consider. These begin with the generation of a potential research question. Is it ethical to ask that question? Can the research to investigate be done ethically? And they span right through to aftercare for participants, data, findings, and researchers ourselves. Of course being independent also means we can operate scams, cheat, defraud people and be as unethical as we like. Which means it is vital for every independent researcher to think and act as ethically as possible, to uphold and improve our collective reputation.
There are no absolutes with research ethics. In fact there isn’t even an agreed definition; research ethics is a collection of diverse theories and practices. This is partly because context is a factor: what is ethical in one context may not be ethical in another. Slicing open someone’s belly with a knife? Definitely not ethical – unless you’re an accredited surgeon in an operating theatre, in which case it may be life-saving and therefore highly ethical. Context is crucial, and that is why we all need to learn to think and act ethically throughout our research practice. And that learning is never finished, because every research project is different and the world is always changing. So independent researchers need to be ethical ninjas: knowledgeable, skilled, responsive, and good at solving ethical problems.
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It seems completely reasonable to me that independent scholars (who have been trained in research ethics) can draft a research protocol, have a colleague (also trained in research ethics) review for any ethical concerns, make adjustments as needed, and then carry out the informed consent process with prospective participants, documenting all of these steps in a way that safeguards the participants. Basically, the independent scholar and their network can serve as their own review board. I’m wondering if other independent scholars have done this and then been questioned by journal editors? In my experience, some journal submissions processes ask the author to affirm that the work was conducted ethically–but I’m failing to recall if any have explicitly asked if the work was reviewed by an institutional review board.
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Kathleen, that seems reasonable to me, too. Also, some membership associations offer help, such as the Social Research Association in the UK/Ireland https://www.the-sra.org.uk/SRA/Ethics/Ethics-Forum/SRA/Ethics/SRA-Ethics-Forum.aspx. I don’t remember ever being asked if work I have submitted to a journal was reviewed by an IRB or equivalent – and I’ve not heard of this from any of my fellow indies, either. Thanks for your thoughtful comment!