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Three questions about the Ethics Committee

Whereas ethical research rules were previously mainly associated with the sciences, today they also play an increasingly important role in the Humanities. What are the consequences of this for researchers in the Humanities? And when do you need the Ethics Committee? We discussed this question with Dorota Mokrosinska and Herman Paul, chair and member of the committee respectively.

What does the Ethics Committee do?

Dorota: ‘These days, all researchers are expected to ensure that their research complies with ethical standards. As a committee, our job is to monitor these standards, for example in the area of privacy, the effects on test candidates, or the use of personal data. We draw up guidelines for ethically responsible research and review research proposals. These are issues that have to be taken very seriously. If you are conducting ethically sensitive research, you are obliged to inform us. And the advice we give is binding: if our advice is not positive, you are not allowed to start the research.’

Herman: ‘But at the same time we are not some kind of ethics police that want to rap people over the knuckles if things go wrong. Every researcher is in their heart of hearts committed to conducting research that is both good and ethical. So we don’t look at things like the best ways to conduct your research in terms of methodology; that’s safe in the hands of the researchers and research groups themselves. However, we know the world around us is placing increasing demands on research, such as the GDPR and the expectations surrounding open science. Sometimes these are generic rules that have their roots in the biomedical world but that can easily clash with the research norms in the Humanities. In these kinds of cases, we help staff to become aware of the changes taking place in this area and the new regulations.’

When is it necessary for a researcher to apply to the committee?

Herman: ‘If, like me, you work with printed sources from the 19th century, there is no reason to show us your research plans. Privacy and data protection issues are much more relevant with living informants or test candidates. In these cases, you have to submit your plan. If you have any doubts about whether your research needs ethical approval, you can use the flowchart or get in touch on an informal basis with the Committee secretary.’

Dorota: ‘Researchers decide themselves on the grounds of the flowchart whether their research has to be assessed by the Committee.  If that is necessary, there’s an application form they have to fill in. Data management officers and privacy officers will then determine whether the research meets the GPDR standards. After this, we check the application, including the informed consent form and the information form. If you work with test candidates or carry out interviews, it is important that you have the permission of the participants and that they are aware of the methods and the aim of the research.’

What are the other tasks of the Ethics Committee, besides assessing research plans?

Herman: ‘As a committee, we try to promote a culture of integrity, and we think hard about the resources we can use for this. We will shortly be putting on the website a set of guidelines for lecturers who teach an ethics course. Almost all teaching and PhD programmes include academic integrity, but it can also be difficult for lecturers to find usable material because there’s a huge amount of information and on the internet and it’s hard to know what’s reliable.  That’s why we have brought together all the available resources in one place. In Rotterdam, for example, a dilemma game has been developed that is very useful for discussing cases with PhD candidates.’

Dorota: ‘There are some instances where something is permitted under the GDPR or it falls outside the current legislation, but there still ethical questions. One example was the discussion about two pages in Anne Frank’s diary that contained intimate thoughts about sexuality. She made it so that these pages were illegible, but with modern technology, the text was revealed. Is this a violation of her privacy then? And imagine that you are carrying out research on a dead person and his or her descendants may be harmed by the revelation of certain sensitive issues; this too will raise  ethical questions. In these kinds of cases, you have to make sure you ask the descendants for their permission.’   

Herman: ‘Researchers often discuss these kinds of questions among themselves, but it would be good to do that in a more formal context, involving the Ethics Committee. Our committee can then act as a buffer between very specific practices on the one hand and very generic government regulation  on the other. I also want to invite researchers to submit these kinds of issues to the Ethics Committee so that we can then pass them on to the policymakers.’

The Ethics Committee works with the faculties of Humanities and Archaeology. The committee meets every month; you can find information on deadlines here.  

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