Ethics Codes and Guidelines

Last month I was involved in the final review meeting for the PRO-RES project. This is a project funded by the European Commission to create an ethics framework for all non-medical researchers. I worked on this project from 2018–2021: I have written about the experience here, and about some of the resources we created and curated here.

One key resource is a collection of research ethics codes and guidelines. We also conducted five case studies of very different approaches to developing and implementing codes and guidelines. These were from:

The International Network of Governmental Science Advice (INGSA)

The United Kingdom Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) and the Association of Research Managers and Administrators in the UK (ARMA)

The Social Research Association (SRA)

The Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity

The Croatian Agency for Personal Data Protection

INGSA has around 6000 members from more than 100 countries, and they are not just government science advisors (as the name suggests) but a much wider group. INGSA acts as an informal network of key actors who help to build evidence and provide advice for policy-makers. It works to ensure that the evidence used by its members is scientifically robust and ethically sound. Its global and transdisciplinary work is too complex and multi-faceted to be managed through a written ethics code or guideline. Instead, it focuses on training advisors to identify robust and ethical evidence.

UKRIO and ARMA worked together to create a common framework for ethics support and review for UK universities and other research organisations. The aim was to support best practice and common standards, and the framework was co-produced by ethicists, research ethics committee chairs, and representatives of universities, research funders and learned societies. The framework was published in 2020, is explicit and detailed, and is freely available online. It is now being used by many universities and research organisations.

The SRA has recently updated its ethical guidelines, which are widely used by researchers from a range of sectors. The SRA is a small charity run by volunteers, and the update was also done by volunteers, which meant it took quite a long time. The pandemic slowed the process even more. In retrospect, they would have benefited from paying someone to do the initial drafting with input from a group of volunteers. They considered looking for another organisation’s guidelines to adopt, but decided that could be just as difficult and might prove impossible. So they pressed on and finished the job. The guidelines were published in early 2021 and are freely available online.

The Estonian case study researched the process leading to, and following, the signing of the national Estonian Code of Conduct for Research Integrity in 2017. The process of developing and signing the code took 18 months and involved universities and research organisations, plus consultations with partners from research and development institutions and with the wider public. After the code was signed, the process of implementation began, with debates around committees for research integrity and different universities applying the code in different ways. The Estonian Research Council and the Estonian Ministry of Education and Science are reorganising relevant legislation to align with the code, and monitoring its implementation.

The Croatian case study focused on personal data protection in academic and research institutions throughout the country, before and after the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into force in 2018. The number of reported personal data breaches in Croatia increased dramatically after the implementation of GDPR, but very few of these related to research. Hundreds of data protection officers across Croatia were found to have little knowledge of personal data protection or its relationship with ethics. Ethical issues around personal data protection were also found to be problematic at EU level. Each of these aspects of the case study were written up in open access journal articles.

These case studies may seem quite disparate but, collectively, they offer some useful lessons. First, when creating frameworks for ethics and integrity in research, there is a clear need to balance ethical ideals with what is possible in practice. Second, being prescriptive is not possible because of the constant changes to research contexts and wider society. Third, delegating responsibility for ethics to a specialised team such as a research ethics committee leads to compliance, not engagement. (I have written more about this elsewhere.) Fourth, sanctions and incentives can help to deepen commitment, but are only appropriate for some discrete elements of research ethics such as GDPR.

I also found it interesting to observe the discussions during the PRO-RES project. I learned that a number of ethicists yearn for a common ethics guide or code: ‘one code to rule them all, one code to bind them,’ as I sometimes enjoyed misquoting. I also learned that institutions, organisations, nations and other groups feel a strong need to develop their own code, with nuances and emphases that reflect their own ethos and vision. The PRO-RES project initially aimed to create a common framework for all non-medical researchers. And indeed it has done so, though how widely the framework will be taken up and used remains to be seen.

A central part of the framework is the PRO-RES Accord, a concise statement of ethical principles which was widely consulted on during the PRO-RES project. Over 1000 people, across Europe and beyond, gave feedback on draft versions before the accord was finalised. Signing the accord means you agree to abide by its principles; endorsing the accord means you commend its principles and will strive to promote them. Anyone can download, sign, and/or endorse the accord, either as an individual or on behalf of an organisation. Perhaps you would like to do so yourself.

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