New journal focuses on research ethics

June issue covers ethnography

A new journal about research ethics includes articles in June 2006, that discuss how the ethics review process has gone wrong for qualitative research, including ethnography.

"The basic problem is that participant observation and ethnography, in which one becomes a part of the group and interacts in a natural way, does not fit the medical model that ethics protocols are designed for," says Joan Sieber, PhD, editor of the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics (JERHRE, pronounced "Jerry"). Sieber also is a professor in the department of psychology at California State University, East Bay in Hayward.

JERHRE is a nonprofit journal published in print and online by the University of California Press. Its first quarterly issue was published in March 2006.

The journal's chief goal is to improve ethical problem solving in human research. Without evidence-based problem solving, many questions about the ethics of human research are unsatisfactorily settled by applying a one-size-fits-all interpretation of principles or regulations, Sieber says.

"Most people agree on the basic ethical principles, but the intelligent application of those principles depends on understanding the context and culture in which they are applied, and that is an empirical matter," Sieber explains.

"Take, for example, the principles of respect for persons and beneficence," she says. "Suppose that a researcher wishes to interview poor victims of Hurricane Katrina — people who have been displaced to other states, lost family members, and do not speak standard English. The IRB will or should have some tough questions." The IRB's questions might be as follows:

• "How will you communicate so that you are understood in the recruitment, the informed consent, and the interview?"

The March 2006 issue of JERHRE included an article on cognitive interviewing which described how to communicate respectfully and effectively with research participants, using terms and concepts that are familiar to them, Sieber says.

• "How do you know you won't simply add to their trauma by re-opening wounds?"

A researcher might be experienced at interviewing trauma victims and knows how to turn a potential risk into a major, therapeutic benefit, but how could the researcher convince an IRB that this is possible? Sieber questions.

Again, the answer is to have more empirical research that examines these issues, she suggests. For instance, an article scheduled for publication in JERHRE in the December, 2006, issue will review the literature on trauma research to show under what conditions interviews of trauma victims constitute a therapeutic experience for them, and when it may do harm, Sieber says.

Suppose the IRB then answers, "But you are going to go in there and can't possibly know what kinds of ethical dilemmas you will find yourself in. How do we know you will do the right thing?" Sieber asks. This is where articles on ethnography and qualitative research become very relevant, she says.

JERHRE's aim is identify and promote meritorious research that will foster best research practices, as well as to educate investigators and IRBs in a variety of new ways, she says.

For example, JERHRE is sponsoring its first conference on July 28, 2006, at the California State University East Bay Conference Center in Oakland, with some funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). For more information on the conference, titled "Creative Ethical Problem Solving in Human Research," visit the web site www.csueastbay.edu/JERHRE/conference/index.html.

[Editor's note: The March 2006 issue of the Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics is being made available to subscribers of IRB Advisor as a free sample on-line, at http://caliber.ucpress.net/loi/jer.]