University research ethics clearances: safety nets, or a false sense of legal immunity?
Beckmann, Johannes Lodewyk
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Ethics reviews are major events in the life of a researcher at a university. Ethics clearances for research projects are time consuming and sometimes slow down research progress. Because of the serious implications of unethical research conduct it follows that ethics committees should review research project applications meticulously and critically. They should attempt to ensure that, in all projects that are approved, the human respondents and participants are protected and suffer no harm that could have been prevented. Issues of ethical and moral conduct and behaviour are fiercely debated on an on-going basis in many walks of life. The issues of ethics and morality overlap notions of the law in some respects (for example they are all about choices between what is right and what is wrong). However, there seems to be a lack of awareness in academic circles about the possible legal repercussions of unethical conduct in research. References to the law are almost non-existent in discussions of research ethics. References that do occur tend to display too narrow a view of what the law is and do not reflect an ability to give due consideration to the legal implications of the granting of ethics clearance. Very little attention seems to be given to alerting researchers and clearance-granting agencies to the legal risks to which they might be exposed during and subsequent to the conducting of a research project. This article investigates the protection that ethics review protocols (particularly in the human sciences at higher education institutions) offer researchers and their institutions against legal ramifications emanating from research projects where participants do suffer harm. In investigating the protection I examine the terms 'ethics', 'morality' and the 'law' and relate them to ethics clearance applications. I also discuss some possible legal consequences of unethical conduct emanating from research. The main finding is that research ethics protocols may offer less protection against legal implications of ethical misconduct than would generally be thought to be the case. There seems to be a need to raise awareness of possible legal consequences associated with research malpractices. There also seems to be a need for and guidelines and training that would facilitate such awareness.
- Faculty of Education