Navigating Institutional Ethics Processes when Conducting School-Based Research with Young People about Sexuality and Relationships Education: Challenges, Compromises, and Possibilities for Change

Year: 2016

Author: Johnson, Bruce

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper reflects on navigating institutional ethics processes when conducting research with young people about sexuality and relationships education. Drawing on the experiences from the ARC Linkage project Engaging Young People in Sexuality Education (EYPSE), this paper documents the impacts of university and education department ethics processes in two Australian states (South Australia and Victoria).Ethics committees have an important role to play in monitoring the conduct of research and it was clear that the four ethics committees we dealt with were all concerned about the students who would be involved in the research. However, ethics committees appear to be increasingly focused on risk aversion strategies. Researchers now need to spend a significant amount of time (and sometimes financial investment) to negotiate ethics approvals. Issues to do with risk mitigation and institutional compliance delayed the EYPSE research project by more than 12 months.Drawing on our experiences with the EYPSE research project, we examine a number of key issues including 1.) discrepancies between researchers’ views of what constitutes ethical research and the framing of ethical research by institutional bodies, 2.) the ways in which qualitative research is often misunderstood in formal review processes, in part due to the biomedical origins of ethics reviews in universities, and 3.) the ways in which discourses of childhood innocence impact on ethics processes.Due to risk aversion, fewer projects are being approved which means a narrower pool of research is available from which to draw conclusions, and the closing down of research into important areas such as sexuality and relationships education limits the possibilities for practical change based on quality research, including research funded by the ARC. For those projects which are approved, negotiating with ethics committees means that compromises need to be reached, often impacting on the depth and quality of research projects. The young people who participated in our research wanted to talk about the issues confronting them with well-informed and trusted adults. We argue that changes to ethics review processes are necessary and need to focus on the ideological and theoretical positions of those reviewing applications, as well as examining the practical value of the research alongside possible risks.