FSD Bulletin

Issue 27 (2/2009)

ISSN 1795-5262

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FSD Bulletin is the electronic newsletter of the Finnish Social Science Data Archive. The Bulletin provides information and news related to the data archive and social science research.


Finnish Social Science Data Archive
E-mail: fsd@tuni.fi

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Ethics Review Process Done the American Way

Helena Laaksonen

According to American researcher Deborah Turner, Finnish researchers are surprisingly open about the details of their research projects. Turner, who worked as a Fulbright scholar at the University of Tampere, tells that she was often compelled to reject too detailed enquiries about her research project. The research license issued by Turner's home university prevents her from revealing detailed information that could compromise the research participants' anonymity, even to fellow researchers. For example, she cannot tell the name of the organisations she collects data from.

Deborah Turner

In the United States, an extensive ethics review system of research is in use. Every university has an Institutional Review Board (IRB), which reviews all research projects involving human participants or data. The purpose of the board is to protect the rights and welfare of research participants. The intention is to minimise physical, mental, and social risks, and to balance the potential risks posed to research participants with the value of the information gained from the research. The researcher cannot start data collection before the board has reviewed the research and granted permission.

However, the practices and requirements vary between different universities. Ethics review process is especially strict in universities where medical research is conducted. Deborah Turner was conducting her research in Seattle at the University of Washington, where medicine has a strong position.

"After submitting the research plan to the board, it took five months before I received my first conditional license", says Turner. She received the actual license only after obtaining a written consent to conduct her research from each target organisation.

Conceptualising Oral Documents

In her doctoral dissertation for the Information School, Deborah Turner discusses 'oral documents'. She investigates on what basis and in which context orally transmitted information can be conceptualised as a document.

The target organisations in the study are memory organisations which produce information as their main product or service, such as libraries and museums. Altogether six organisations are included - three from the United States and three from Finland. For her research, turner interviewed people working in managerial positions and observed meetings in which they participated in their work community.

Informed Consent Essential

Getting the research plan accepted and receiving the research license required careful planning on how to inform the research participants. In the study, the interviewed managers were primary research participants, and the other people present in the observed meetings were secondary research participants. Turner had to build separate forms for both groups to inform them about the research, and submit them to the board beforehand for approval.

"It is important to receive informed consent from research participants. They express their consent by signing the consent form. In practice, people do not usually read the form before signing it, and the ones who read it become confused", says Turner.

What is confusing in the form is probably the amount of information. The participants need to be informed about the purpose, benefits, and methods of the undertaking, as well as about the potential risks and unpleasant consequences. In addition, they are informed about the way personal data are processed and when they will be destroyed. The participants are encouraged to pose additional questions, and the voluntary nature of participation is emphasised. According to Turner's experiences, only few research participants pose further questions.

Results Influenced by Review Process

The purpose of the ethics review process is to protect the rights of research participants. However, the complicated and time-consuming process also has some negative consequences. In the United States, there are even ongoing discussions about the effects of review process on research results, according to Turner.

For instance, the review process affected the data collection methods in Turner's project. "Videotaping the meetings would have caused too much data protection problems, and therefore I recorded only the audio", she says.

In addition to recording them, she took notes during the meetings. They helped in listening and transcribing the recordings later on. Videotaping would have reduced the need to take notes.

Research Process Being Followed

The review board follows the progress of the research process. The researcher has to report annually on his/her progress, send copies of research publications to the board, and tell about potential problems faced in the field. In addition, the research license has to be renewed annually, although Turner notes that renewing the license is rather straightforward compared to applying for it for the first time.

Turner feels that she has also benefited from ethics review. She herself did not foresee stumbling across confidential information in her research. However, the review board considered it possible and advised the researcher on how to deal with it.

Turner has made a commitment to destroy the original recordings as soon as the research has been completed. The transcriptions of these recordings contain only anonymised information, and therefore destroying them is not necessary. Turner had planned on destroying the transcriptions as well, but after familiarising herself with the FSD, she has began to see archiving the data as a potential alternative.


Sources and additional information:
» Information on ethics review at the University of Washington
» The Belmont Report - Ethical Principles and Guidelines for the protection of human subjects of research

Deborah Turner worked as a Fulbright scholar in the Department of Information Studies and Interactive Media at the University of Tampere during the academic year 2008/09. Her doctoral dissertation Conceptualizing Oral Documents was accepted on 26 May 2009 at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Ethics Review System Also to Finland

For the time being, ethics review is left at researchers' own discretion in most scientific disciplines in Finland. However, Finnish researchers might have bumped into the ethics review system in surprising situations. Some English scientific publications require an ethics review process to be completed before publishing an article. In some international joint projects foreign parties may require ethics review before accepting a Finnish researcher group as their partner. Because there is no ethics review system in Finland, people have to seek creative solutions.

The ethics review system planned to be introduced in the humanities would facilitate acting in these kinds of situations. The HYMY II working group appointed by the National Advisory Board on Research Ethics to look into ethics review issues submitted its report early this year. The working group aims at avoiding the creation of a heavy and all-embracing ethics review process. The goal is to create an ethics review system which would only apply to some, specifically predefined research settings, and so the majority of research could still be conducted without ethics review.

More information on the HYMY II working group available on its web pages.