Over-Concern With Research Ethics

April 2002

Ed Diener, President
Society for Personality and Social Psychology

In 1978 I co-authored a book on research ethics, believing that investigators needed to be more sensitive to ethical issues. Since that time, I have become concerned that ethics review boards have become overly sensitive, sometimes to the point of craziness. One recent example: An investigator moves to a new institution and brings old data with him. The new university requires that he must have all the old studies reviewed, even though they were reviewed at the institution where the data were collected and even though the studies are all completed, if he is going to do any more analyses on the data.

The problem is not just with the federal government guidelines - it is with institutions that go far beyond the guidelines in worrying about possible problems that have a remote chance of arising. We are in the strange situation where many ethics review committees are adding on increasing hurdles, paperwork, and rules, at the same time that participation in research has become one of the safest activities in which our subjects participate. Think of it - dating, driving, playing sports, working, watching movies, eating, and sex are all much more harmful on average than participation in the vast majority of behavioral science studies. What can be done to make the review procedures and level of scrutiny equivalent to the very, very low risks in most psychological studies? Our ethics review panels need to be reminded of several things:

  1. The rules of NIH (National Institutes of Health) provide large exemptions from review of many of the methods used in psychological research. These exemptions were provided because the types of research which are exempted were considered ethically trivial by those who wrote the laws. Exemption from review for research without true risk of harm needs to be granted much more often.
  2. Prototypes of certain types of research protocols can be given approval, and research thereafter that fits into these prototypes can be granted expedited review. This modular approach to ethics approval could be used much more to save investigators from lengthy paper chases.
  3. Review panels need to be reminded that they have an ethical obligation not only to protect research participants, but also to foster good research. It is unethical to block or slow research that can benefit society and science, unless there is good cause in a particular instance. Thus, to the extent that a board imposes lengthy delays, extensive applications that take away researchers' time, and will not exempt research that fits certain broad categories, the review panels are obligated ethically to provide compensatory assistance to researchers to offset these costs. The review panels cannot simply impose delays, moral qualms, and demands without also giving offsetting aid to researchers (e.g., help in completing the forms, advice on getting the research approved, funding to comply with the requirements, and so forth). Ethics review boards need to understand that society profits greatly from research, and they have an obligation both to protect subjects and to foster research. One suggestion is that review committees grant expedited review (very quick and easy check-off forms) for all research that does not contain risk of harm beyond everyday life, is not deceptive, and which does not contain highly sensitive information.

We have come to the point where ethics review committees are starting to impede research in many cases. Overly-nervous people are sometimes drawn to these committees, and universities are increasingly fearful of the federal government. In this climate, active researchers must work to keep ethics reviews in proportion to the actual risks that are involved in behavioral research. Judging from the virtual nonexistence of documented harm in our studies, the risks are almost always close to zero.