I just wanted to ask some people some questions

Yesterday I tweeted the following:

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I’m currently in the process of upgrading my masters to a PhD, the thesis of which is likely to be via publication of a series of case studies on projects. And the fact that ‘projects’ is plural means multiple ethics applications in order to collect data. The problem is that, because what I do is coming up with new education-related stuff, generally the only type of data collection I want to do is surveying people, interviews and/or social media data, all of which falls under the umbrella of ‘asking people what they think of things’. And because I only ever want to report the data anonymously, it’s about the lowest-level thing you can do while still requiring ethical clearance. But every single time I am still forced to wade through a form (which is arguably one of the world’s most poorly-designed) asking if I will be exposing people to ionising radiation, drugging people or researching on foetuses. Or perhaps even more amusingly, ‘keeping data in a locked filing cabinet’ – evidently they haven’t heard of the internet.

Generally I would rather have dental surgery than fill out an ethics application. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And it’s a problem. I do a lot of stuff, at least some of which is pretty cool, but I don’t publish traditional papers very often. The fact that I would have to wade through an ethics application yet again just to be able to ask people what they think of what I’m doing in order to write a paper about it is a significant barrier. Red-taping research into the ground is not conducive to innovation or proliferation.

So I’m proposing a certification system for those who work in low-risk humanities-type disciplines and predominantly want to conduct anonymous surveys – do an application once and get a green card for the remainder of your academic career. Then you’re free to go forth and innovate and get participant experience data whenever you need it, without having to explain for the 900th time that you are not going to be irradiating people.

4 Replies to “I just wanted to ask some people some questions”

  1. I get your point, and I feel your pain as a fellow humanities researcher. I just feel I’d hate to be the one who rubber-stamped your green card and then you decided to actually irradiate people for project #901!

    Being career-greenlit has, I think, the potential to make some (not all, just SOME) researchers stop thinking about their research’s wider implications, and not see the forest for the trees. I think it’s important to stop and look at every piece of research we do with people to consider that this isn’t just OUR research, OUR project, it’s THEIR lived experiences. Every time.

    If we skip that and drive the freight train of our research (okay it was quality inspected when it was built, but what if that was 40 years ago?) through their front yards whenever we like without them feeling like they’ve got a say in it, we risk people’s apathy at best, outright hostility at the worst. Even more, we risk alienating humanities even further from the general population. Then when it’s funding time, or there’s that story on the news about “Research Council Grants for Useless Humanities Projects” again, Joe Citizen may just decide that this humanities research does nothing but pry into his personal life, and he’s going to vote for a party that doesn’t support giving money to these nosey stuck up academic types. Then we’re all in the toilet…

    Be assured you don’t suffer alone through your rage against the ethics machine. If it’s not too trite, I’d suggest to you that you take each and every opportunity to talk, write, draw diagrams or do interpretive dance about your research projects – even in application form form – because every time (even the 901st) time you explain that you’re not irradiating people is a chance to explain what you ARE doing, and that’s a chance to let your project “baby” out into the sun, to shine and perhaps even to grow.

    1. Perhaps I should have specified that the hypothetical green card would only be for anonymous survey research and anything outside of that would still require standard approval, I’m the first person to agree I should not be allowed to irradiate people. Also I do think that, given not seeing the forest for the trees is fairly endemic across the sector anyway, I’d take a few researchers acting with blinkers over a ubiquitous sector-wide massive waste of time. However if I was required to do interpretive dance instead of filling out a form to get ethics approval I would be all over that.

      I do take your point though :).

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