Some Recent Books On “Research Ethics”

September 2016

John Furedy was a long-term crusader against intrusions of various agents into the realm of scholarship and research. John saw such intrusions as compromising the intellectual and experimental processes, and thus as harmful to scholarship. He was ever vigilant and always outspoken when such intrusions were identified, as Janice Fiamengo has noted well elsewhere.

Among these intrusive agents, the last 30-40 years have witnessed the rise of a research ethics industry, federally and locally: Research Ethics Boards in Canada (REBs), Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) in the United States. Scholars are obliged to submit proposed research ideas to committees of peers and others to be approved before executing the project.

The ostensible justification for this enterprise was to improve public safety. However, from this initial reasonable concern, over the years the concept of safety transformed from “everyday risk” to “zero tolerance.” In addition, committees began to judge the value of the proposed research, and the desirability of the anticipated results, moving well beyond issues of safety. Other expansions of the original mandate also contributed to an increasingly obstructive industry, such as the adoption of medical research concerns in the reviews of behavioural and social science projects.

The result of these steady expansions has been to delay the start of innocuous projects, and to shift the role of the reviews from monitoring actual hazards to one of censoring research ideas and procedures.

John’s initial efforts in challenging the research ethics enterprises were along the lines of philosophical debate. For example, he noted that the committees lacked the expertise to assess many projects, had no moral authority to forbid certain lines of inquiry, and routinely expanded their alleged authority. In addition, local committees regularly required things that the federal authorities said were not required, and yet the federal overseers would not stop such expansions.

Eventually the challenge to these committees examined the question of the value of such reviews. That is, was public safety improved, and how do we know? This approach revealed that no one knew whether these reviews were working, and worse—they did not care! There had been no baseline established, there was no ongoing monitoring. In truth, quantifying the gain would be difficult in any event, given that there was essentially no evidence of a problem to begin with!

The research ethics industry has clearly intruded on academic inquiry, and there has been no meaningful dialogue on the matter. The tone of the discussion from local and federal authorities is “comply,” with no interest in the effectiveness of the enterprise. There also is no evidence that the censorship activities are recognized as inappropriate to concerns about public safety. The research ethics enterprise seems to be completely unaccountable.

Discussions of REBs and IRBs are archived on; others can be found on John Furedy’s web page; and even a few more are on my own web page

In memory of John, I’d like to note the recent emergence of a literary genre that examines the influence of the research ethics industry on scholarship. The works I list below focus on the problems created by the research ethics industry—that is, they are critiques, as opposed to simple recitations of the regulations. I have probably missed some books; I mean no evaluative judgment by such omissions, and would be glad to hear of other efforts in the genre.

Zachary Schrag (2010), Ethical Imperialism: Institutional Review Boards and the Social Sciences, 1965-2005, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, MD, ISBN: 9780801894909 (hb),

In 2006, Professor Schrag (George Mason University, History) started a weblog to discuss developments at the federal ethics agencies as well as in universities ( In his book, he recounts the historical development of the research ethics movement in the United States. “This volume explains how this system of regulation arose and discusses its chilling effects on research in the social sciences and humanities.” Schrag has regularly noted developments in Canada's Tri-Council Policy Statement and compared them to counterparts in the US.

Ted Palys and John Lowman (2014), Protecting Research Confidentiality: What happens when law and ethics collide, James Lorimer & Co.: Toronto, ON, ISBN 978-1-4594-0703-9 (pb),

Professors Palys and Lowman (Simon Fraser University, School of Criminology) discuss their personal experiences of preserving the confidentiality of subjects, as required by research ethics boards at universities, while negotiating with outside agencies that insist participant identities be divulged. What happens when law and ethics collide, when two masters conflict, when university REBs do not honor the agreements they required? “Priests can hear confessions with reasonable certainty that no court and no government will require them to speak of what they hear. But what about people who agree to help scientific researchers?”

Carl Schneider (2015), The Censor’s Hand: The Misregulation of Human-Subject Research, MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, ISBN: 9780262028912 (hb),

Professor Schneider (University of Michigan, Law and Internal Medicine) merges his experience of the law with that of medical research to address the question whether IRBs do

more harm than good. His judgment is that IRBs were fundamentally misconceived with regard to what is known about effective regulation. IRBs, he shows, “lack the expertise, ethical principles, legal rules, effective procedures, and accountability essential to good regulation.” As a result, they make decisions poorly, and thereby “delay, distort, and deter research that can save people’s lives,” serving as censors in an environment where censorship is most dangerous—universities. Schneider’s conclusion: IRBs “inescapably do more harm than good,” and should be abandoned.

Michael Corballis (2016), How a distinguished scholar was driven to kill herself: The dark side of science, Edwin Mellen Press: Lewiston, NY, ISBN-13: 978-1-4955-0425-9 (hb),

Professor Corballis (University of Auckland, Psychology, Emeritus) re-examines a sad moment in Canadian science from over twenty years ago: the deaths by suicide of McGill Professor Justine Sergent and her husband, Ives. A McGill alum and a one-time colleague of Sergent, Corballis provides a retrospective analysis along with his own memories in an effort to understand the many circumstances leading up to this regrettable incident, including research ethics.

Will C. van den Hoonaard and Ann Hamilton (2016), The ethics rupture: Exploring alternatives to formal research-ethics review, University of Toronto Press: Toronto, ON, ISBN: 9781442626089 (pb),

Professor van den Hoonaard (University of New Brunswick, Sociology, Emeritus) has written extensively on how qualitative social science research has been impaired by research ethics boards. As qualitative researchers have had to modify their methods in order to comply with REB rules and biomedical concerns, the naturalistic essence of their work has been compromised, if not destroyed.

Philip Hamburger (2014), Is administrative law unlawful?, University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL, ISBN: 9780226116594 (hb),

Professor Hamburger (Columbia University, Law) is the third author here with a background in Law. Government agencies, despite their particular mandates and the absence of legislation expanding their roles, tend over time to gather more and more territory to themselves simply by declaring, through administrative edicts, that that territory falls under their authority. It seems that research ethics boards are no different than other agencies. Mission creep becomes ethics creep. Hamburger is scholar who has an extensive knowledge of free speech issues and the apparent violation of speech by research ethics boards.