Lisa Tambornino is a researcher and research manager at EUREC, the European Network of Research Ethics Committees. Carly Seedall is a research analyst at EUREC, focused on cross-national research ethics.
Reliable research is always important. But it is especially important in a global crisis. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, decision-makers knew very little about transmission routes, risk factors, and treatment options for COVID-19. To save lives, society expected them to find out as much as they could about COVID-19 — as quickly as possible. This push to produce findings at lightning speed affected not only researchers, but also those who ensure that good science can take place, such as research funders, publishers, policymakers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and research ethics reviewers.
The team at PREPARED have been consulting with these actors, and found that these actors confronted a variety of ethical and integrity challenges during the pandemic. Publishers and editors, for example, who were often already operating at full capacity, faced the challenge of reviewing a vastly increased number of manuscripts submitted during the crisis. Members of research ethics committees (RECs) also struggled to cope with the flood of research proposals related to COVID-19. When the pandemic compelled an NGO-led research team to switch to phone interviews in place of field visits, they found it difficult to assure the safety of vulnerable research participants like domestic violence victims. Policymakers battled a stream of COVID-19-related misinformation and monitored the flow of sound research findings to communities, including to vulnerable and marginalised groups that lacked access to reliable sources.
These actors promptly adapted to the challenges through innovative solutions. NGO-led research teams, for example, introduced “safe words” that vulnerable research participants could use during phone interviews to indicate problems, while policymakers used national hotlines, mobile health apps, and press briefings to counter misinformation. However, these adaptations often proved inadequate to address all ethical and integrity-related challenges.
To bolster research ethics and integrity in future crises, research actors cited four common needs. First, as actors found themselves operating in silos during the pandemic, they called for increased collaboration and open dialogue with other stakeholder groups and the public.
“Policymakers battled a stream of COVID-19-related misinformation”
RECs, for example, sought structured consultations with policymakers, researchers, and other ethics review bodies, while policymakers called for the development of a robust public engagement plan. Second, actors in the research process demanded guidelines to establish a coherent crisis response. Publishers and editors, for example, asked for uniform fast-track review procedures for crisis-related manuscripts – procedures developed during the COVID-19 pandemic were impromptu, leading to confusion and diverging expectations. NGOs noted a lack of localised guidance on remote data collection and standard operating procedures for research ethics review. Third, stakeholders agreed on the need for tailored training materials to prepare for future crises. And fourth, actors requested financial and human resource support to meet funding shortages that made coping with increasing workloads during the COVID-19 pandemic extraordinarily difficult.
The COVID-19 pandemic illuminated the importance of research to society. However, the experiences of research actors demonstrate the ways in which research ethics and integrity standards can buckle under the pressure to deliver rapid solutions. By encouraging collaboration, developing guidelines, providing training, and increasing funding for actors at all stages of the research lifecycle, benefits can be maximised and risks of research minimised when crisis inevitably strikes.
Report can be found in full below: