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Five research ethics issues – from a PhD perspective

In the overview of the Ethics Review Act, The Swedish National Union of Students Doctoral Committee lists five issues of importance for doctoral candidates specifically, which they mean that the overview must consider.

Meryem Saadi and Karl Kilbo Edlund, The Swedish National Union of Students Doctoral Committee
This is a discussion article. The opinions expressed are the writer’s own.

The government has initiated an overview of the current Ethics Review Act, which is scheduled to present its conclusions on 30 September 2024. This review, which focuses on how sensitive data can best be protected while enabling important research, is timely and answers to a deeply felt need among researchers, including PhD candidates.

Meryem Saadi

Vice-chair, The Swedish National Union of Students Doctoral Committee

However, as representatives of PhD candidates and PhD candidates ourselves, we wish to highlight that the protection of sensitive data is but one of the challenges posed by the current legislation to the fulfilment of high-quality research driven by doctoral candidates. And, we must not forget, this is a substantial proportion of Swedish research; in 2015 doctoral candidates performed approximately a third of all university research in Sweden.

Karl Kilbo Edlund

Committee member, The Swedish National Union of Students Doctoral Committee

Therefore we list five core issues going beyond the question of sensitive data, which we hope the inquiry and future policy changes in the area of research ethics will consider:

  1. Waiting times for ethical approval are long. Although this is understandable given the rigorous evaluation, it causes problems for PhD candidates and postdocs who have short contracts and fewer opportunities to adapt their schedules than more senior colleagues. For PhD candidates within the STEM fields this is less problematic, as they are normally part of a large project and approval can thus be sought already before the PhD candidate has been hired. However, PhD candidates in most other fields apply for their position with a project proposal of their own. Requiring these PhD candidates to seek ethical approval for their studies in advance is both impossible and ill-advised, as it would further increase the hurdle for candidates without prior research engagement. Instead, under the current system, these PhD candidates have to apply for ethical approval only after starting their position, which takes up substantial amounts of valuable time early on in their doctoral studies.

  2. Putting together a detailed ethical application at the start of a research project limits the scope of its development, hampering especially PhD candidates. With the exception of research performed within prespecified trials or experiments, most research is fundamentally exploratory. Researchers can and should indeed add or change research questions and methods as new information becomes available, and also have to adapt to unforeseen practical issues and limitations. This is especially true for doctoral research which is also a learning process, where the main researcher, the PhD candidate, cannot reasonably be expected to foresee all changes and issues along the way.

  3. The current ethical approval forms are adapted to interventionist medical research. This design makes sense since it is the research traditionally and still most associated with ethical problems. However, most research performed in Sweden, and mostly by PhD candidates, are not interventional studies but rather observational in nature. Many are small-scale research projects employing qualitative methods, which the current system is even less adapted to. Changing this could also improve waiting times, as a separate track would enable quicker handling of less ethically complex studies.

  4. As recent legal cases have shown, connected to doctoral thesises at Lund University and Örebro University, it is very unclear who is legally responsible for the ethical approval of research when it is performed by doctoral candidates. If research is unintentionally performed without due ethical approval, or if it goes beyond what has initially received approval, who faces the legal consequences? And what consequences are proportional? Even notwithstanding the legal responsibility, such a blow can have serious repercussions for an early career researcher.

  5. The fright of legal actions has inspired many universities to require special checks on ethical approvals for PhD projects, often implemented through the Individual Study Plans (ISPs), half-time or licentiate seminars, and pre-defence scrutiny. While all are sound and reasonable, together these create an environment of heightened ‘ethics anxiety’ around the PhD education, measuring PhD candidates towards an artificially and unnecessarily high standard for ethical technicalities, drawing focus away from both the PhD research and actually fruitful ethical reflections. This is also reflected in many doctoral courses in research ethics focussing almost exclusively on the mundane technicalities of applying for ethical permission, while foregoing the actual ethical questions relevant to different forms of research.

These are all issues that we hope will be considered in the development of the research ethics system, of which the currently ongoing governmental inquiry forms an integral part.

The issue of what data are sensitive and should be covered by the research ethics legislation is central, but in order to seriously improve the opportunities for a large portion of Swedish research, the issues we list above are central as well.

The current ethical legislation, while well-meaning, creates a great deal of unnecessary anxiety among Swedish researchers, especially junior and early career researchers, and we believe that addressing the core issues outlined above will be pivotal to achieving and maintaining long-term research excellence.

Meryem Saadi, vice-chair, The Swedish National Union of Students Doctoral Committee

Karl Kilbo Edlund, committee member, The Swedish National Union of Students Doctoral Committee

Meryem Saadi and Karl Kilbo Edlund, The Swedish National Union of Students Doctoral Committee

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