Bioethics Blogs

British Universities See Ethics Committees as "Easy and Convenient" Censors

Adam Hedgecoe reports on two cases in which British university administrators turned to their university research ethics committees (URECs) not to protect the subjects of research, but to block controversial research they feared would tarnish the universities’ reputations.

[Adam Hedgecoe, “Reputational Risk, Academic Freedom and Research Ethics Review,” Sociology, June 25, 2015, doi:10.1177/0038038515590756.]

No sex, please

The first case concerns a Kingston University undergraduate who wanted to explore “female students’ decision to enter the sex industry.” The project got preliminary approval from an REC subcommittee, which asked only that the researcher stay safe and keep interviewees anonymous, and even agreed not to review consent forms lest that step slow down the research.

For reasons not clear from the article (Hedgecoe is working with a limited set of documents extracted with a Freedom of Information request), the supervisor then requested full committee review. This committee forbad the student from interviewing any fellow Kingston students. And while Hedgecoe doesn’t have a smoking gun showing that the ethics committee was primarily concerned about the university’s reputation for driving its students into prostitution or other sex work, he comes close with an e-mail from the university publicity and press office to the student’s supervisor:

What worries me is that although I’m sure the research does highlight it [i.e. student sex work] as a problem globally as well as nationally, your research is based on a survey undertaken with [our] University students and it’s the publicity surrounding that which concerns me. The story has hit the international press in India which, as you probably know, is a big market for [the University].

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.