Social Science and Research Integrity

In my spare time, I volunteer as the newsletter editor for the Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI; note that you should just try to read the acronym—spissy—as opposed to reciting the individual letters.) In the most recent issue we put out, I had some space to fill. And I had also been thinking a lot about the recently released report from the National Research Council on proposed revisions to protecting human subjects in the behavioral and social sciences. This is because of the research that I do on research ethics and the responsible conduct of research. It’s very convenient when I have something to say as a writer and space to fill as an editor. I wrote up my thoughts on the matter and stuck it on pp. 10–11 of the Spring 2014 issue. Of course, I highly recommend downloading the whole SPSSI newsletter—we have a slew of wonderful contributors that detail SPSSI’s mission and members’ work. Really—go read it! But, now, here I am as writer with a brand new blog. And how convenient that I’m a writer with something to say, and editor of this blog with space to fill. So, I am happily re-posting (with minor edits) here my thoughts on:

Ethical Research Practices for Applied Social Scientists

Given the increasing buzz around ethical research practices in social psychology (see the Stapel case, the push for replication, and the recently released report from the National Research Council (NRC) of the National Academy of Science regarding Proposed Revisions to the Common Rule, highlighted on p. 20), I encourage all of us—SPSSI members, teachers, students, and applied psychology researchers—to take this discussion even further, both with SPSSI and with our respective institutions and departments. For my part as a researcher, I’ve had fairly typical experiences with IRBs and research ethics training. But until I arrived to work at the CITI Program, I never gave it much serious thought. For instance, as a doctoral student in the summer of 2007, I surveyed Israelis and Palestinians in Israel about their support for specific examples of political violence common to both sides of the conflict. And, yes, I provided each potential participant a detailed informed consent form describing the study and his or her voluntary participation that needed to be signed and dated. Why? Because signed informed consent is standard ethical procedure in conducting research with “human subjects.” Never mind that when presented with the consent form, many participants looked at me quizzically, wondering what on earth they were signing away. Or, they were just trying to size me up to make sure I wasn’t with the CIA. I must not have looked very threatening, since most people signed the form without much additional hesitation. In hindsight, I wonder whether such a standard boiler-plate consent form requirement actually protects our “human subjects” in these types of settings. I don’t think I’m the only one that wonders this; though I don’t know for sure as I’ve never had any lengthy discussions with my colleagues about such matters.

Enter the NRC’s Proposed Revisions to the Common Rule for the Protection of Human Subjects in the Behavioral and Social Sciences. This report suggests that social science research is vastly different from biomedical research. Has the time come for us to start acknowledging that applying a standard biomedical ethics framework may not work for non-biomedical research? From group dynamics research, we know that imposing one group’s norms and values onto a different group is rarely a sustainable solution as it is not in either groups’ best (long-term) interests. This may be an important take-away message for how we define ethical research practices across disciplines. But what, you may ask, are the differences between the way social scientists and biomedical scientists interact with their research participants? Aren’t we all interested in the human condition, regardless of whether the inspection is at a more specific, individual level or a broader, cultural level? Yes. Most of us likely subscribe to the superordinate “researcher” identity. However, differences still abound. The NRC report provides such examples as the language we use when referring to individuals in research studies (human subjects in biomedical research vs participants in social science research). Consider also, the difference between the potential invasiveness of biomedical research procedures, with blood draws, genotyping, and personal, intimate visits with a clinical researcher. In contrast, social science research entails a more distant and general procedure, where the participant may complete an anonymous survey questionnaire or take part in a “computer game.” These are important nuances that represent different disciplines, different research procedures, and different research goals. For example, are we working to cure cancer with a new drug treatment, or are we working to improve awareness of organ donation for the betterment of society and ultimately to save lives?

Conducting research according to the Common Rule is incredibly important if we want to maintain a level of respect, beneficence, and justice for our research participants. Research ethics should not simply be a training we check off in grad school. It is a lifelong endeavor to pursue throughout our research careers. While some things are relevant across disciplines, I am not certain that there is a one-size fits all ethical practice for every research scenario. As applied social scientists, we need to be an integral part of the dialogue, as well as  a part of the solution, in defining and upholding ethical research practices in the field. As an academic society that works to promote social justice and awareness of social issues, this is one issue that I feel needs closer examination within SPSSI. There are many ways that we as SPSSI members can take action. First and foremost, let’s start the discussion. We can talk about professional training, discipline-specific guidelines, research on research, or whether or not you agree that the ethical challenges facing biomedical researchers are different from the ethical challenges facing social science researchers. As a SPSSI member for nearly a decade, I know that I am surrounded by some smart people who care deeply about socially relevant issues. I haven’t seen many SPSSI discussions on this topic. This is a small oversight that is easily rectifiable. Let’s talk!