Research ethics in pandemic times

Illustration by  Staselė Jakunskaitė

Illustration by Staselė Jakunskaitė

While it was and is still not easy to conduct human factors research given the lockdown conditions, applying and waiting for the ethics approval was a major challenge for my patience (truth to be said, I am not very patient). The evaluation time of the ethics of our crisis-response COVID-related research proposals was a long wait. This might be due to the general work overload of the committee members but could also be related to the importance of checking if planned human factors research is responsible and ethical.

Generally speaking, ethics approval is an important and inevitable stage in any human-computer interaction research project. Ethics committees in different countries might require more or fewer details before approving the study, but the studies usually cannot be published without the ethics approval information. For example, in Sweden, they expect researchers to act responsively and ask to apply for approval only if sensitive information is collected. Instead, in the US, getting ethics approval requires lots of work, and every small detail should be described. I’d say that my experience in Ireland is more similar to the US than in Sweden.

At the same time, the pandemic is an exceptional time with quickly changing situations that require rapid response. While we had to wait for the ethics approval before starting any data collection, it is well worth the wait and important not only for academics but for … everyone. Why?

First, a bit of theory.

Lately, I was reading a lot about the ethics in COVID-related HCI research and came across an essay by Richard V Reeves. He defines two concepts: “truth” and “truthfulness“.

Truth is what we know for sure. It can be empirically tested or fact-checked. The earth is round, well, almost.

Truthfulness is more difficult to define, as it depends on the speakers. How much effort did they put into verifying this information? What was its source: a blogger post on Instagram or a scientific article (and of what quality)? How do they react to the evidence that their claim is false? If they continue to repeat this statement anyway, one can begin to doubt.

Truthfulness has two important components – accuracy and sincerity. Ethical approval is one of the early checks to verify our statements (accuracy). Next, the knowledge should be shared entirely and honestly (sincerity). Even in serious large scientific studies, it is impossible always to be sure that the results are 100% true. Almost every scientific article has a “Limitations” section talking about unverified conditions and possible research bias. Some things are beyond our understanding, and we often write that “more research” is needed to get closer to the truth. Even the experts in their fields cannot know everything. At the beginning of the pandemic, the masks were not considered important, and now we know that they actually help reduce the spread of the virus.

I really liked the following phrase: “A mistake made on Monday and corrected on Tuesday becomes false if repeated on Wednesday.” Science does not stand still. Research studies are repeated, verified, new facts come up, something is refuted, something is confirmed. Research is a process. Getting to the bottom of the truth is the final product, and it is impossible to achieve it without truthfulness.

Reference: “Lies and honest mistakes“ by Richard V Reeves