Do people really not know about research ethics boards?

Warning: I’m feeling cranky today.

It’s great to see scientists getting excited about doing interdisciplinary work – for example, in science studies.*  It’s embarrassing, sometimes, to see how bad they are at it.

You’ve probably seen, like I have, requests to participate in various on-line surveys – often coming via social media, although email blasts are a thing too.  Just as a few recent examples, I’ve been invited to express my views on citation practices, interpretation of authorship order, produce-shopping preferences, travel intensity, and more. (I’m not counting just-for-fun Twitter or blog polls – heck, I do those – I’m talking about surveys that are identified as being for research.)  I’ve gotten in the habit of clicking on these invitations to do a little research of my own. My research question: how many of these “research” surveys have research-ethics board (REB) approvals?

You can probably guess the answer from this post’s title. It’s maybe ¼ at most.

If this shocks you, then you know more about human-subjects research than (apparently) ¾ of the people who are trying to do it. Well, no, that’s not quite right. You know more about human-subjects research than ¾ of the people who are trying to do it by broadcasting links to online surveys.

Just in case you don’t know this (and you mightn’t, if you don’t do this kind of research: in most countries research involving human subjects (including surveys, not just Phase III vaccination trials!) must be approved by your institution’s research ethics board.** If you do the work without that approval, most journals will refuse to publish it, granting agencies will refuse to fund it (or may retract previous funding), and various other unpleasant things may happen to you. The REB will consider things like your plan to secure informed consent, your curation of personal data with respect to ethics and laws around privacy, and more. They’ll also assess the quality of your survey design – and this is not a small consideration, give that it’s hard to imagine someone being oblivious enough to do human-subjects survey research without REB approval, but also competent enough to design human-subjects survey research correctly.

Actually, that last point is a key one, and worth putting another way. If you’re considering doing research that involves surveys (whether online or not), you need to realize that survey construction, deployment, and interpretation are hard.  As scientists, most of us don’t know much about that. If you don’t realize that your survey needs REB approval, well, that’s pretty good evidence that when it comes to survey methods, you don’t know what you’re doing. So find a collaborator who does! We all have friends and colleagues in the social sciences who have the relevant expertise. Be interdisciplinary by involving experts from multiple disciplines – don’t be interdisciplinary by dabbling in things you clearly don’t understand.

Yup, I was right. I am cranky today.

© Stephen Heard  December 21, 2020

Image: Under the magnifying glass, CC0 via Pixabay.com


*^”Science studies” is the discipline that considers how scientists do their work and how science is done – not philosophy of science, but the culture of science and the systems we use to plan, conduct, and disseminate research. As you can probably tell from reading Scientist Sees Squirrel, if I were starting over and needed to pick a different field, science studies would be high on my list.

**^There are some complications to this, but no, you don’t get a free pass if you claim you’re just doing the work in your spare time. And no, it doesn’t matter whether your institution is a university, an NGO, a government lab, or something else.

8 thoughts on “Do people really not know about research ethics boards?

  1. Chris Mebane

    “And no, it doesn’t matter whether your institution is a university, an NGO, a government lab,….”
    I wonder how that can work for the self-employed or small ngo employees, etc. who sometimes conduct science studies. My impression (unencumbered by actual knowledge) is that in many countries the institutional review board arose from government funder requirements and subsequently became institutionalized. It seems much murkier for noninstitutionalized researchers.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s actually a good question, Chris. I know in some cases people work with an REB at a nearby or otherwise affiliated university. At a minimum, such folks should be asking for advice via an REB somewhere. Maybe someone else reading this will know?

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  2. John Pastor

    I have been asked to participate in a number of these surveys. But I stopped entirely after seeing how poorly designed many of their questions are. Leading questions, asking for yes/no answers to things that are obviously more nuanced to any working scientist, etc. Any REB would have caught these problems within 30 seconds of reviewing the application for approval. I would have expected to see some statement at the top of the survey about having passed REB approval, but I have never seen one. This is not to say that I completely discount the field of science studies, but its practitioners will not have much of an effect on how the scientific community works if they don’t have credibility with working scientists. If there is a Society for Science Studies, it would be helpful if they could convene a working group to set some standards.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      Sounds like you’ve had the same experience I have! To be clear, I don’t think the problem is the field of science studies – that’s a genuine discipline, with training and journals and meetings (and yes, at least one Society: https://www.4sonline.org/). I think the problem is people who try to DO science studies without realizing it’s a field or bothering to learn best practices in that field. I suspect “a working group to set some standards” would have no effect, because the folks doing the surveys that you and I are objecting to wouldn’t realize those standards exist, or perhaps wouldn’t care. Which goes right back to the problem in my last paragraph!

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  3. Nuria Guirado-Romero

    Me encanta tu mal humor: “Be interdisciplinary by involving experts from multiple disciplines – don’t be interdisciplinary by dabbling in things you clearly don’t understand” .. Esta afirmación es valiente y muy cierta aunque pocas veces se visualiza o se piensa.

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  4. Eric Lamb

    Great points Steve. One of my PhD students is studying the impacts on prescribed fire reintroduction, and has a chapter looking at how small organizations cooperate to safely do fires. We had to get ethics approval when the primary activity was him taking notes while participating in planning meetings. He is therefore both a subject of the research and the researcher, and I am the PI and a subject of the research….

    Our human research board was great. They had a full time staffer (PhD. in a social science discipline) who was really happy to help a couple of natural scientists who admitted ignorance and asked for help. They had templates for almost everything and advice and editing on the rest.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I’ve had similar experience with my REB the couple of times I’ve taken research to them. Very helpful and very appreciative that a scientist would want to engage with them. They were OK with the fact that I just admitted I needed help figuring out what to tell them!

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