Ethics approval

It has been a while between posts, not that this reflects lack of thesis activity.  A paper on Lawrence Hargrave, focusing on his 1911 archaeological excavation near his Woollahra Point home, has been submitted for publication.  With a bit of luck it will appear about mid-2011, near the centenary of the dig taking place.  Lots of library work going on as well, and have done some fairly detailed biographical sketches of a few people, ordering the very sketchy remnants of their lives in a more useful manner.  These will gradually be added to the blog.

One of the main activities I have been involved with is getting ethics approval from the University.  This was required because of the proposed interviews that are part of the thesis plan.  Originally I was looking at interviews as a way of fleshing out the most recent part of the history of Australian pseudoarchaeology.  Two groups – [A] advocates for secret visitor claims and [B] the academics and  public servants who have to deal with them – are planned for interview.  The interviews themselves have been planned as proper oral history interviews – fully recorded, with reviewed transcripts following a structure and eventually made accessible to researchers by lodging in a public institution. As part of the interview all interviewees  [both groups A and B] are asked to complete an attitudinal survey that looks at their interest in Australian history, the nature of historical knowledge, belief in other aspects of pseudoarchaeology and so on.  The aim was to have a basis for comparing attitudes between the two groups and seeing if there was any consistency between the two groups or are they separated across a range of attitudes.  To give that some context I also wanted to issue a questionnaire to [C] archaeology and heritage professionals and [D] archaeology and history students, to see whether these attitudes change as people are professionally developed and become entrenched as ‘cultural’ views.

The initial application was lodged in July this year to Sydney University’s Human Research Ethics Committee [HREC].  The application form is about 25 pages long for humanities research and covers a lot of ground.  I think there is a serious question about whether there was any humanities input to the form or the policy for compliance, which is strongly geared to human medical research and taking samples.  The form for humanities is the same apart from sections on the taking of physical samples and administering drugs.  As well as the form there were detailed attachments ranging from the letters required to ask landowners for permission to enter their property to advertisements for interviewees to the release forms for interviews.  My bundle totalled about 30 pages of attachments.  Ten copies of the lot [25+30] were required for the HREC.  I had invested a lot of work in preparing this and thought I had done a good and careful job.  Wrong – there were about two dozen issues, some minor but many that required a considerable re-jigging of the approach.  Consultation with the chair of the committee followed, and a revised version 3 was put in in September, after I dropped the questionnaires for Groups C and D, which were just too hard.  That version came back in October, with some of the issues having been sorted but quite a few not.  Frustrating as that was I had no choice but to make further adjustments and Version 4 went in during November.  That was a bit chaotic, as my supervisor was doing fieldwork in the Solomon Islands and I had to get specific approval to be allowed to have my associate supervisor authorise it.  Version 4 has now come back in mid-December and having received comments on the Thursday I had to lodge Version 5 by Monday in order to have a possible resolution before the end of the year.  It was sent in late on the Sunday night and, with luck I will hear something positive this week.

Because the PhD is a spare time activity I tend to think of it in terms of weekend impacts.  Preparation of the ethics application has taken, almost literally, about 5 months of Sundays.  It has taken, all together, about 20 days to prepare the initial documentation, and to completely re-examine it and re-write sections.  I have submitted about 1750 pages of copies in total, and tried, really tried to keep my calm when the responses come back, and it notes for example on Version 4 that the word ‘scrapped’ should be replaced with another word, even though it was present in versions 1, 2 and 3.  Hopefully, though there is nothing left that may possibly raise the antennae of one of the anonymous HREC members and I’ll get an approval for Christmas.

Postscript – approval was given yesterday [15 December].  Its probably too late in the year to start contacting people with interview plans into the coming year, but I should be able to start preparing letters.  A nice, if prolonged and self-bought Christmas present.

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2 Responses to Ethics approval

  1. Sarah Colley says:

    It seems to me that Universities try to save money on administration by developing ‘one size fits all’ policies and procedures that can be dealt with by one central committee. Often they ask for large volumes of background information and tiny details and explanations that have to be set out ‘just so’ on forms that can take – literally- days and days of work to complete. This is reduce the work of the central committee as everything is ‘standardised’ for them. I personally think there are many problems with this approach. When I also applied to USyD for ethics clearance for another project I e-mailed the admin people at the very end and explained why it was impossible for me to comply with some minor technical issue to do with formatting they were asking for in Adobe PDF – I was unable to provide what they asked as my University computer did not support the version of the programme. The admin people agreed to let me send some documents in the “wrong” format as an attachment to e-mail. I think you could usefully write to the University and explain the costs to you – as a PhD student – of this administrative burden. A lot of University related admin is like this – and it starts at the top from the ARC. Tried filling out one of their on-line forms??

  2. Iain Stuart says:

    What a load of crap – look up the ICAC transcripts to see how one person dealt with the problem — they simply said that they thought they had approval (and then proceeded to defraud the North Shore Hospital).

    I think it is a condition of using archival material that you agree not to cause “hurt” to anyone whatever that means and however that is enforced.

    Imagine if Moses had to get ethical approval to address the burning bush or Luther to nail the thesis’s to the church door.

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