How can ethics committees judge whether researchers are competent to conduct qualitative research?

[check out some more thoughts at the end of the post]

I’ve just taught a session on ethics in qualitative research, part of an intensive course designed to give attendees an appreciation of the philosophical and ethical issues underlying research involving human participants. There was good representation from those who called themselves qual researchers, those who had done some qual research, those who felt comfortable that they knew a bit about it and finally, those who had only been exposed through sitting on a Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC).

Many of the concerns that qualitative research raised for HREC members were driven by the sense that the particulars of qualitative research are unspecified and/or unspecifiable. HRECs can’t be sure who exactly researchers will talk to and what precisely they will talk to them about. It sounded like HREC members felt they can’t exert the control they think is necessary to protect participants. I think they are right. Much qualitative research involves a flexible iterative process where the design emerges, the research questions are refined, the interview questions are specified, revised and often abandoned, all post-ethical review. Indeed, the precise focus may not emerge until the research is well on its way. One HREC member who sees a lot of research proposals about children with chronic illness felt very protective towards potential participants. Already burdened with illness, the thought of just anyone being ‘let loose’ on them, with a vague set of research areas rather than a set of approved questions, was pretty discomforting. In the absence of specifying the ‘who, how and what’ the participants in my training felt they had to simply trust the researcher knew what they were doing.

HRECs officially do have a responsibility to determine if the researchers they are ‘letting loose’ know what they are doing. The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2007) says research that has merit “is: (e) conducted or supervised by persons or teams with experience, qualifications and competence that are appropriate for the research.” So how do HRECs make a judgement about appropriate qualitative experience, qualifications and competence?

In judging appropriate experience, qualifications and competence I think HREC should start with: Who is the qualified qualitative researcher on the team who can undertake this work. Is evidence of formal training in qualitative research too high a bar? Absolutely not! A Master of Applied Epidemiology or Biostatistics is official recognition of competence; that is how it is understood when it appears on an ethics application. Why not expect the same of researchers planning to undertake a qualitative project? It is not like it is that hard to get some training. [Gratuitous plug coming] I run a really very good postgraduate course and offer a range of short courses. There are short course offerings in Australia through ACSPRI or researchers can do an online course. We’ve come a long way since qualitative methods had to be self-taught or when the attitude of ‘how hard can it be to do a few interviews’ was acceptable?

In the absence of a formal qualification how else can a HREC judge competence? I don’t have a qualification; I covered qual methods briefly in my undergraduate degree, used them extensively for my PhD; have years of practical experience and have received supervision from experienced qualitative researches. I might convince a HREC of my competence by saying something like:

Dr Mooney-Somers has over 20-years of experience in the development and use of qualitative research in health and psychology, including in her PhD research. She has employed several qualitative methodologies, and conducted research with a range of populations including young people and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and on sensitive topics including youth cancer and sexually transmitted infections. Dr Mooney-Somers has been the principal lecturer on the Sydney Qualitative Health Research postgraduate program for five years, taught qualitative research to community researchers and supervised students undertaking qualitative methods from Honours to PhD level.

There are other clues to the presence or absence of appropriate experience, qualifications and competence. HRECs might look for the following:

    • Do the researchers seem to understand qualitative research? Red flags for me include: the research aims are not broadly about meaning, understanding, experience, or process; surveys as the only method (unless there is a lot of free text questions); references to measurement; claims about representative sampling or generalising findings to the general population.
    • Are they drawing on their experience to inform the proposed practice? “In the past I have used ranking exercises in focus groups to successfully engage young people in conversations about X
    • Do they present a methodology that justifies their proposed actions? Are they just gesturing towards a branded methodology or drawing on a specific version/methodologist? Are the methods and language consistent with the claimed methodology? They need not use a branded methodology, I’m looking for a coherent justification that ties the research aims/questions to the methods and the outcomes. “In line with our ethnographic methodology (ref) adopted for this project we propose to conduct observations in three sites” “Following Charmaz (2014) this constructivist grounded theory study will…
    • Who is actually generating the data and are research assistants receiving training in interviewing/facilitating focus groups?
    • How is the data analysis process described – anything that looks like “data from interviews will be transcribed and analysed thematically” is a massive red flag. It suggests they have no idea how they will analyse the data, or that an analysis strategy is not part of a methodological framework.

Additional thoughts (18 June 2015)

I sit on a research ethics committee for a non-governmental organisation. I read two applications yesterday that concerned qualitative research. Both did pretty poorly at demonstrating they were prepared by teams who had appropriate qualitative experience, qualifications and competence (although one was prepared by very experienced researchers). I’d like to add to my original list of clues to the absence or presence of qualitative competence:

  • Is there alignment between the research questions and the data generation strategy? Between the research questions and the sampling strategy? Between the research questions and the analysis plan? That is, are they generating data and analysis that will answer the questions?
  • Training is in my original list but I was really struck again by its importance in an application from a student. Is it clear who is conducting the data generation? Do they apear to have appropriate experience, especially if dealing with sensitive or complex issues? If inexperienced (eg a student), is the supervisor experienced? What plans are there to provide training and ongoing guidance around data generation? You can support a novice interviewer through short courses, practice interviews (consider video and review), an experienced interviewer reviewing early interview transcripts, and regular debriefing.
  • Do the researchers demonstrate an awareness of and handle the specific ethical issues that qualitative research produces? What are those issues, I hear you say… that calls for another blog post!
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