Researcher Efficacy vs. The Tick Box Culture; A Place for Ethical Training and Reflection in Global Higher Education

Western Universities have increasingly sought a systematic or process based approach to ensuring researchers undertake ethical research which complies with their institutes research policies and regulations. This ensures researchers gain prior permission for undertaking Human Subject Research, gives managers a measure of oversight on the research being undertaken in their institution, and attempts to ensure it is done in an ethical manner. However universities also see this as a defence against increasingly litigious practices which can create an inflexible approach that in itself can create tensions when unusual or previously unencountered research situations occur. On undertaking research involving Human Subject Research, researchers and their supervisors are often confronted with a list of criteria based on their institute’s research ethics policy containing the key aspects of their institute’s ethics requirements such as informed consent, permission statements and information requirements etc. Researchers and supervisors are normally required to tick the criteria as a checklist and sign to ‘ensure’ ethical research is being undertaken.

However contemporary research is beginning to suggest this may not be sufficient to create an ethical framework and in some situations may actually lead to a lack of underpinning ethics in the research. This occurs for various reasons including when the checklist is relied on for the duration of the research, signed before the implications of the research is fully understood, or given little regard once the research is underway. This places significant responsibility on both the researcher and the supervisor. Evidence shows this may be accentuated in global research and as western universities form global delivery networks in regions with different values.

In this paper the author outlines contemporary literature about research ethics approaches and suggests the tick box checklist may not be sufficient to guarantee ethical Human Subject Research or even form a defence against litigation for unethical research practices. It also suggests the development of ethical research may even be hindered by tick box checklists and discusses alternative approaches to research ethics before forming a contemporary model based on substantial ethical training for supervisors and researchers. It concludes by advocating for a more open and flexible approach using a continual reflective ethical dialogue with the university from the outset, through the research period, and on completion.