As researchers, we are all aware, at least to a certain degree, that understanding ethics and ensuring that our work is ethically sound is important for us and any party involved in the research. However, what I am going to talk about here (probably my last blog post) is how a simple routine (i.e. getting an ethical approval) impacted severely on my life and experience as a student at Warwick University. Nearly 9 months of my life were wasted while being very stressed as a result of this issue.
You see, until this problem occurred, I was quite happy being at Warwick University. I have suggested Warwick University to many of my friends and I was proud of it. However, after this incident, I am not sure if I will be doing that...
Before I explain what happened, I have to make it clear here that I am writing this post for two reasons:
- Hopefully to alert decision makers to this issue to resolve it so no one else's life is impacted by this.
- To cool-off, by sharing this with visitors and friends.
Below, I will discuss the main key issues and their impact on my life as a student at Warwick University.
The Ethics Process
Up until the point I needed to collect my data as part of my PhD, I was never told that there is a formal process to go through to get approval for doing this. Usually, various lecturers in the workshops would talk about the importance of ensuring our work is ethically sound. Even in a REME module run by WMG (Warwick Manufacturing Group), I wasn't told about this process. However, this is not the real issue.
The issue is that, apparently because this is somewhat a new process (Ethical approval process), not many people were aware of how to go about doing it within the department (WMG).
Based on a number of criteria on a university page that helps students in selecting the ethics committee they should apply to, I found that I am supposed to submit my work to the social sciences ethics committee. Of course, this didn't seem wrong since my research is closer to social sciences than pure engineering. However, after spending time preparing all papers, all of a sudden and while seeking more help and feedback on my application before submitting it, I was told that WMG students have to apply through a different committee called BSREC. Of course, I had to start all over again since this committee had a different procedure and applications to follow. This wasted some time initially...
The BSREC committee
BSREC is the ethics committee that deals with the medial schools. So, you probably have an idea of how complex and exhaustive their process is to get approval. They have every right to do so because they deal with sensitive and human tissues and stuff like that. Things that impact lives.
What this meant is that it took quite a lot of time to fill everything. Additionally, another flow I noticed is that they expect researchers to be fully aware of everything in their research from A to Z. Again, this is normal probably in the medial field. However, I was actually planning to use a mixed methods design. Sometimes, you don't actually know what you will be interested in or what you want to specifically ask and collect data from until you finish the first stage! So, how would I fill and go through a process that wants EVERY detail while I am still thinking, considering, and didn't even start the first stage?
Submitting to BSREC
I had to apply 4-5 times to BSREC because each time, they came back with different comments. Below I discuss the main reasons for this and the major delays that I have faced.
Who is the expert?
When applying for an ethical approval, it should be a given that those who are assessing my work should be in my field or at least close to it. It was very clear from the comments that there were major differences in how me and the committee looked at my research and the methodological decisions I made. You see, I believe that the researcher has full responsibility of the choices he makes and this is part of the learning journey. So, as along as these choices are not significantly or negatively impacting on others, he would ultimately have to stand by his decisions and defend his work. Both me and my supervisor believed in this. What's more, every decision I made and mentioned in the application was actually supported by various references. So, I didn't come up with my own novel methodology, I actually picked something that is being used almost everywhere today.
At once time, I noticed some delay in the response so I called BSREC. They informed me that they are getting input from an expert. They informed me that the expert they asked had some comments. I asked: what field or subject is he an expert in? They said: Education. They said but don't worry, we have send the application to another expert. I asked again: what field or subject? They said: Education.
An expert in my field is someone with knowledge of Innovation or Technology adoption. Education researchers usually prefer different methodological approaches. So, I ask, how come my work was assessed from those not from my same field and not even close?
BSREC receives all the information about each study they received. Perhaps they should have contacted my department to ask for an expert opinion from my field or close to it.
Continuing on the previous point, there were times where the comments I received for not approving my work were clearly methodological in nature. Meaning, they would suggest I change the methodology! Really? Last I recall I am the researcher and I make the decision on what approach is best for my goals. So, my question is, if I do change my methodology as a result of BSREC's comments, how do I answer and defend my work at the viva? Do I tell them that such change was suggested by the University's BSREC committee?
Delays in responding
I've read on some page on the university site that responses could take up to 20 days for each submission. However, in my case, there were a number of times where I had to chase them with e-mails or phone calls because it took nearly a month if not more.
I quickly noticed from the responses that there were almost no rules or criteria governing or drawing the line between what is clearly related to ethics and other (e.g. methodological) areas that shouldn't be assessed unless for their ethical impact.
Many of the comments included things like I think that... or We believe that....
I was expecting something like: You can't do X because it has Y ethical impact. Nothing more!
What is really frustrating is that there doesn't seem to be a good way of defending against such comments. So, my question is, are we really supposed to that what others "think" of our work even if it is wrong?
This doesn't seem to be good...
Again, very frustrating is that instead of making comments that clearly indicate flaws, many of the comments were really and could mean many things. One such comment which wasn't made clear until very late was how the committee doesn't approve of me trying to collect data from the whole population of my study or a large sample. This was never clear from the start and had they stated this key comment clearly, things would have been different. Instead, each time they hint to this differently!
All comments at once please?
This one is really frustrating! Despite my work always being the same and making just small changes to previous comments they have send me, they seem to always generate more comments, leading to more changes. It seems like this has became a full time job of answering comments and receiving more comments. This caused so much frustration especially since many of their comments, as explained above, were vague and subjective.
Comments that have nothing to do with Ethics
Of course, many of the comments were not related to ethics at all. Once example of this is how they asked me to remove my picture from the invitation e-mail I was sending to respondents. Sorry but what does an ethics comment have to do with the way I design or present my work?
One responses I received was clearly unprofessional (both me and my supervisor agree to this. It was from someone who is not a researcher and I am not sure what his relation to my work other than being an administrative worker. He said that my work was rubbish and that it is not their job to guide me to how to do a better application. What is frustrating more, (remember vagueness above), is that he said so without saying anything about my he believes my work is rubbish.
I would have possibly thanked him if there were clear flaws. However, both me and my supervisor have reviewed this many times before and during the whole process. Additionally, this person wasn't even close to my area of research so how could he say such disrespectful things about others work?
Would you allow someone that have no idea of what you are trying to achieve tells you that everything you are doing is rubbish?
Lack of support
Another frustrating thing is that I was feeling that, aside from my supervisor, no one else cared about this. I mean, despite my e-mails to BSREC to help me resolve this so that I could get back to my study, they didn't seem to care...
Also, at some point, I met with someone within WMG and I explained the whole issue to him, he was supposed to be the first one to help since his job was overseeing the whole research team but all that I got out of the meeting I had after asking for help is: We can't do anything. You have to keep going through the process. So much for student support if you ask me. It felt like the only person that cared was my supervisor...
Impact on my life
Needless to say, the near 9 months delay had a severe impact on my life. This is no place to discuss this but I would to like to mention some things:
- Waste of time struggling and anticipating and always been rejected.
- Waste of money: I had to wait for the whole period unable to do anything else. So, I was paying for the rent, tuition, etc... without any gain really.
- Stress: I can't begin to explain this. There was so much stress because I was worried that this would go without an end. Of course it did (I am talking 9 months here...). The high levels of stress impacted everything, but most importnatly, it impacted my family (wife and daughter).
I am really grateful for Paul Roberts, my supervisor, for his continued support. Without his support & encouragement, I would have probably dropped out or transferred to a different institution. Being in continued high stress for so many months is not part of what I've signed up for.
Recommendations for the University
- Ensure there are clear lines between what the committee can and can't do.
- Ensure that each applicant gets his work reviewed by someone in his field or at least very close to it.
- Make it an electronic process and track how many times an application was rejected and any delays in responding.
- Based on the above, if an application is delayed, trigger another action that would quickly provide help or outside assessment on the process and what was going. This way, at least there is a way to step in and help people who are trapped like I was...
- Offer full support and help for students before and during the process.
- Provide a process for the applicant to defend his work and debate any points made by the committee which may not be true or related to ethics.
- Help the students know their rights and what to expect from this process and what to do if it goes wrong.