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There is considerable regional variation in approaches to reviewing social science research. In some jurisdictions it receives no review or is only reviewed if conducted in a medical context. In other settings social science protocols go through exactly the same forms of review as clinical research, using the same application forms and being reviewed by the same committees. A third approach is for social science research to be reviewed by specialist committees and using dedicated application forms. Overall, increasing proportions of social science research are coming under the scrutiny of committees that review research.A number of issues can arise when seeking to review social science research.  Where such applications are reviewed with processes designed for medical research and by committees that customarily review such studies, concerns can arise about the appropriateness of the application forms and the review. Committees may find it challenging to incorporate sufficient expertise to conduct review, and applicants have reported frustrations when being reviewed by committees that have relatively little experience of reviewing qualitative research. For example, concerns may be expressed by committees about small sample sizes when they are used to assessing sampling methods for quantitative clinical studies seeking to produce generalizable results of statistical significance. In some cases the number of participants to be recruited in qualitative studies may not even have been finalised before research begins as researchers focus on interviewing as many participants as necessary to thoroughly examine an issue of interest.  Traditional models of seeking consent prior to the conduct of research may also be challenged in in participatory and action research where participants and researchers are negotiating the route of the research while it is being conducted. In such cases it is not possible to produce an information sheet prior to the study with details of exactly what will be involved over time.Concerns have been expressed that on the one hand, review of social science research may be inappropriately restrictive because of concerns or disagreement about issues such as appropriate sample sizes and consent processes. In contrast, committees may assume that social science research is inherently minimal risk and it may receive inappropriately expedited review, even when examining issues of great sensitivity or controversy.If you have views about the appropriate review of social science research, please have a look at the draft Ethical Guidelines for Social Research that will be discussed at the FERCAP (Forum for Ethics Research Committees in the Asian and Western Pacific Region) meeting next week. The draft Guidelines are available at SUGGESTED FERCAP ETHICAL GUIDELINES FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH. If you post a comment on this blog below it can be fed into the discussion. We will keep you updated about the progress of the draft guidelines and the development of our specialist online courses in reviewing social science research.

  • Jantina Jantina de Vries 16 Nov 2012

    Hi Susi,

    thank you for sharing these, and great initiative. My comments are relevant for qualitative social science research only. Here are some comments:

    1. I think it is quite important that the discussion on qualitative social science (qss) research is expanded to include a discussion of: the nature of harms in qss research, e.g. potential for psychological distress when re-living a traumatic event during the interview, or disclosure of illegal practices; the nature of sample size determination, namely that this cannot be done before a study but is dependent on when a study reaches saturation (often difficult to explain this to cttees used to statistical determination of sample sizes); and a discussion of types of qss research where it is impossible to take informed consent, such as for example some observational research or anthropological research;

    2. The guidelines say that ‘inclusion’ and ‘exclusion’ criteria need to be clearly defined. However, these cannot (and ought not be) as clearly defined in qss research as in medical research. For instance, one could describe a category of the kinds of people one would like to include, but one cannot really be specific about these people. For instance, an important means of identifying participants is through snowball sampling - asking one interviewee whether they have suggestions for who else the interviewer should talk to. When adapting that method of sampling, there is no way of knowing exactly who will be included in the study. Same counts for participant observation methods. My feeling is this point should be taken out of the recommendations;

    4. I don't think it is appropriate that reference is made here to medical research guidelines (Helsinki, CIOMS). Social scientists have worked hard to develop guidelines for ethical research themselves and it would be more appropriate to add reference to these;

    4.The draft guidelines mention 'stigma and social risk' A LOT. The impression is created that all or most qss research risks raising stigma, whereas this is not at all true. Also, it is not clear what 'social risk' means. I think this concern could be discussed in one point only;

    5. point 8 – confidentiality is important per se, not as a means to address stigma. T

    6. Point 11 is highly contentious! What is the argument for this recommendation? At most, participants could be given an opportunity to comment on the findings of a study, but they CANNOT be given the opportunity to change the data originally obtained! That would invalidate the entire study;

    7. Point 17 is also problematic. Please give an example. Does that mean that one should get consent from both parents when interviewing a person >18 about their childhood? And then when parents refuse, the offspring is not allowed to talk to the researcher about his/her parents??? Please give an example where this could be the case. I'd prefer to delete the point from the guidelines.

    I hope that helps. Enjoy the meeting & discussions

  • Susan Susan Bull 17 Nov 2012

    Hi Jantina
    Thanks for these very helpful comments which I'll pass on at the meeting. Are you aware of any guidelines for social research that have been specifically drafted for African contexts?

  • Hallo,

    this is not specific for the African context, but there is a draft FP7 Guidance Note for Researchers and Evaluators of Social Sciences and Humanities Research (2010). You can access it in the web: