Monday, November 26, 2007

Ethics Review Board

I have to write this.

One thing that irks me the most is paperwork. We spend most of our lives trying to meet the criteria, expectations, limitations and measures set by people and institutions that do not ultimately treat us the way we want to be treated.

I am doing my research on sexual minority representation in the Straits Times. Research involves the usual literature review, content analysis of the Straits Times and some interviews to get some insight and expert opinion. The application for ethics review (exemption) I have submitted was deemed to have insufficient information. I claim to be "insufficiently" informed.

The National University of Singapore (NUS) has this research ethics review board that ensures all research are ethically conducted, without harm to human subjects. There has to be minimal risk, which is defined as “the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the research are not greater in and of themselves than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests”.

I am only doing a handful of interviews, with the help of audio-tape recording. Is getting opinion of other people and having the consent to publish them risky or harmful? Everyone is entitled to their opinion, aren’t they?

There are apparently a series of procedures to store, secure and dispose the data (wherever appropriate). If anonymity is requested, the contact details of the interviewee will be recorded separately on a different paper/source and later disposed. That is how it is supposed to go.

You see, I have been informed my application for exemption from review (I am extracting any blood or fluid, nor injecting anything into my interviewees, hence the application for exemption) is incomplete and lacks the details required by the board. I am at a lost here because the words in the forms are either too broad or too scientific. I believe the board should include a more customisable application form to incorporate social science research methods, such as interviews and ethnography, and their relevant protocols. For example, if interviews are going to be done, a checklist should be prepared for researchers to follow. At least details that are required by the board can be iterated in this checklist. If they want “everything”, what is “everything”?

“I keep the interview tapes in a 10 by 5 inch wooden box, locked up and kept under my bed in my room in a flat in Hougang.” Does that constitute “everything”?

On top of my dislike for form-filling, I would like to declare my dislike of ethics review boards. It is a good thing to ensure that human beings are firstly not physically or psychologically harmed. Next, their jobs and reputation should not be affected too. After that, they deserve the degree of confidentiality they demand. Academia, and especially so in the arts and social sciences, is about finding out the “truth”, whether the “truth” comes from the ordinary folk or the expert.

I have been told my topic is potentially sensitive, because it deals with sexual minorities and I am seeking opinions from interviewees on this. I see no harm in having an opinion. If you wish to express it and want to be anonymous, it is up to the researcher to ensure that anonymity. If the interviewee is thoroughly briefed and later consents to being quoted, the research is ethical. Why should the researcher abide by a “research ethics” guideline inspired by the hard sciences?

It is in my honest opinion, that the ethics review board in NUS does not treat arts and social science research as seriously as the hard sciences, and we hence have either vague demands or too science-oriented checklists and protocols. Vague questions with vague words. There are no checklists/protocols for surveys, interviews, ethnographic work and so on, yet these are demanded on the researcher by the board. Details of the demands are also not clearly articulated.

Here are my questions:

1) What do you think of GLBTQ representation/reports/news in the Straits Times?

2) Do you believe there is a conscious/deliberate effort by the Straits Times to present such news/reports in a certain manner?

3) Do you believe alternative media has any effect on the Straits Times reporting on GLBTQ issues?

4) [If applicable] What are your personal beliefs towards GLBTQ people and issues?

5) [If applicable] In your best judgement, what is the percentage of homosexual people, and women in the newsroom?

6) [GLBTQ person/rights activist] How is your relationship with the Straits Times?

The data I intend to gather will consist of opinions, perceptions and experiences. If having an opinion, a perception or an experience is so dangerous, risky and harmful, it might not be articulated or expressed in the first place by the interviewee (after the interviewee is briefed, of course).

Ethics review boards kill academia and research in arts and social science. It is not about the researchers who apply and go through the reviews; it is about those who got fed up with the bureaucracy and rigidity and walked away from the research. To remedy this, since Singapore is a place where solutions are preferred over criticism, we should have a specialised ethics review board for arts and social sciences, instead of a centralised committee which is rather science-oriented, although they probably may not want to admit that.

I am completely and utterly disgusted and incensed.

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