Meet people in the School, Psychology

Meet the Chair of the Open University’s research ethics committee

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We continue our series introducing important role-holders in the School of Psychology and Counselling. Dr Claire Hewson is Chair of the Open University’s research ethics committee, HREC (Human Ethics Research Committee). She writes about the committee’s functions, her experience as Chair and her own interest in online research methods.

One fascinating aspect of chairing the OU’s research committee is gaining an overview of the range and diversity of research involving human participants that is being carried out across the university. In this post I explain what HREC does and why it is needed, and discuss some of the challenges and rewards of acting as HREC chair.

 Why HREC?

Researchers gathering data from human participants are typically bound by codes of good ethics practice, and at the Open University it is the role of HREC to help ensure that these codes are respected and implemented. The work of the committee is crucial in protecting the reputation of the Open University, and the interests of research participants and researchers.

All research carried out at the Open University (with the exception of student research projects on taught courses) should be approved by HREC, the purpose of which is both to ensure that OU research is carried out according to the highest ethical standards, and to provide liability insurance cover to protect researchers in case anything goes wrong. If HREC approval is not gained then a researcher is not covered, leading to enhanced risks.

The committee itself consists of a chair, 2 deputy chairs, a management team and around 25 experts who assist in reviewing applications and offering advice and guidance in their own specialist areas. In addition to reviewing applications and approving research projects to go ahead, HREC also runs training sessions and advice clinics.

External committee members include a medical practitioner, a researcher from an institution other than the Open University, a lay person, and representatives from both a corporate and a religious body. Alongside the internal members this offers a diverse, wide-ranging body of expertise and experience from which OU researchers can draw.

Researchers are welcome to get in touch at any time to discuss any particularly difficult ethics issues and concerns they have. Many applicants have commented to me personally that the advice they have received from HREC during the application process has been invaluable in helping shape their research in a way that meets stringent ethical principles and good practice.

Chairing the committee

As chair, it is rewarding to witness the beneficial effects of HREC’s work on the quality and ethical integrity of research at the Open University.

The committee processes over 300 applications a year, with a clear recent trend towards this number increasing. As chair I personally have sight of the majority of these applications, that range from smaller-scale surveys of student experiences on OU modules, to large-scale research carried out in collaboration with international partner organisations.

Turning ethics principles and guidelines into practice within an actual research study is not always straightforward; even in the most carefully planned research, surprises can occur, unforeseen challenges may emerge, and solutions can take some effort to find. HREC is here to assist researchers needing advice on any of these aspects.

My own special interest is in online research methods that gather data via the internet and using digital technologies. This recently emerging area has thrown up many controversies, ambiguities and challenges in terms of how to apply existing ethics principles in an online research context. For example, debates over what should be considered public and private data accessible online prevail, with implications for gaining consent and using the various data traces available online for research purposes. In this area, in particular, there is still a steep learning curve for research ethics committees, as well as practising researchers. Unforeseen events can occur and require resolution.

In one case, a research team approached HREC for urgent advice after their online survey, that offered an incentive payment and was advertised ubiquitously on social media platforms, was bombarded with fake multiple submission attempts. This lead to overload of the server and raised serious concerns about data validity, not to mention the impending cost of the numerous incentive payments claimed! A solution was arrived at that got the study back on track, with some crucial design adjustments, after initially suspending all data collection procedures as a temporary emergency measure.

Other unanticipated risks may simply emerge due to a lack of researcher experience, especially in areas using emerging methods, such as online data collection, that are still being explored within the relevant research communities. HREC is on hand to help researchers in navigating these various risks. Building upon an ever-expanding knowledge base, HREC can provide guidance on the issues that could potentially damage or even sabotage a research study conducted either online or offline.

You can read more about Dr Hewson and her own research on her webpage http://fass.open.ac.uk/people/cmh363 

For more information about HREC, and research ethics in general, visit the committee’s webpages at http://www.open.ac.uk/research/governance/ethics/human.

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