Research: ethics committees, the risk of a “bureaucracy of virtue”?


In recent years, ethics committees have been strengthened in the French research landscape. Objective displayed by these bodies  : ensure upstream that a study or experience will not harm the people who participate.

In the Anglo-Saxon world, although these committees (or Institutional Review Boards , IRB) have long been imposed in the humanities and social sciences (SHS), they raise a number of criticisms, including researchers favoring field investigations and other qualitative methods.

It is therefore appropriate to question this trend: is it to increase the ethical vigilance of SHS researchers during their interventions? Or can it hide some form of censorship? Do we mimic the Anglo-Saxon practices resulting from biomedical research? Or do we intend to preserve the institutions of costly lawsuits and reputational risks? Ensuring access at the international level to certain partnerships or publications that have registered an ethics committee in their funding and / or acceptance procedures?

Since 2016, prescriptions that are increasing in France – and feed the work of ethics committees – are generally guided by the most noble motives. Who would not agree that a research should in no way harm the subjects observed or questioned, that it is frequently necessary to anonymize them, that it is scandalous to falsify results, to plagiarize or to reveal industrial secrets? On the other hand, the way in which these principles are applied raises questions.

Historical origins

In the 1960s, three experiments (and their associated scandals) mark the beginning of ethical concerns in SHS. The most famous are Milgram, on submission to authority, and that of Zimbardo, also called “Stanford”, based on a staged in a false prison ( strongly contested today ).

There was also the lesser-known work of Laud Humphreys who went secretly to observe homosexual encounters in public toilets … and lifted the number plates to be able to find the subjects and observe their “normal” life!

These scandals will lead academic associations to produce codes of ethics, and institutions to form the first ethics committees, the famous Anglo-Saxon IRB. Their generalization will give rise to a more general reflection published in 1979 in the “Belmont Report” which establishes the now canonical principles of respect for the individual, beneficence towards the subjects and justice in the selection process.

This report then lays the foundations of two key principles:

  • free and informed consent
  • the benefit / risk calculation of research

These principles will be endorsed by the “Common Rule” which institutionalizes the logic of conformity and the IRB.

In France, the history of ethics committees began in 1983 with the creation of the National Ethics Advisory Committee, whose mission was to issue “Opinions on the moral issues raised by research”. Then came the Huriet Act in 1988, which established the creation of Advisory Committees for the Protection of Individuals in Biomedical Research.

In 2004, these committees will become, in a logic of harmonization of the European systems, CPP (Committees of protection of the people). One point is essential in this evolution: the committees are said to be confirmed and not more consultative, that is, they are binding.

Finally, in 2012, the Law Jardé requires all research involving people to have to go before a CPP. The implementing decree is published in 2016, which explains the important organizational and institutional changes in research ethics committees in recent years.

Inadequate protocols

For our Anglo-Saxon colleagues who have long been subject to IRB and other research ethics committees , the prior approval of a detailed protocol presents the risk of hindering field research in SHS.

If the experiment, in psychology for example, lends itself well to the construction of such a protocol, this one prohibits the exploration, the research-action, the participant observation or of ethnographic type … approaches that accommodate bad of these requirements.

Indeed, before any access to the field, it would be to submit the research question, the definition of the sample and questions. In addition, collecting the free and informed consent of each participant is only possible if the researcher verifies assumptions already structured, and this in certain contexts.

However, for many in SHS, the design of the research is constructed “way making”. The observation of cultures and strategies of actors implies to blend in the scenery whereas any observation “covered” becomes difficult to lead. Thus, this type of protocol, individualizing “subjects” does not lend itself well to the identification of collective phenomena. In addition, the requirements in terms of RGDP (General Regulation on Data Protection) complicate the work of the researcher.

Eric Gagnon (2010) identifies three main underlying rationales that pose questions in the form that these ethics committees are gradually taking in France:

  • bureaucratization (ie mechanically applying rules and standards)
  • suspicion (impose a control mechanism)
  • Judicialization (by the too administrative nature of this control)

If they adopt a too rigid approach, research ethics boards may actually have a counterproductive effect: they could inhibit or even destroy the ethics they are supposed to be guarantors of.

Tracks of evolution

Faced with these risks, social scientists need to be vigilant and active to deepen the ethical questioning of their work as much as to refuse “the bureaucratization of virtue” ( Jacob & Riles, 2007 ).

Four ways seem to offer themselves to them:

  • to submit and favor a competition that does not ensure the quality of their production
  • circumvent the rules
  • cooperate to change the practices of the ethics promotion institutions (in terms of training, debates, approval process and sanctions) in order to adapt them to the SHS
  • exempt SHS from imported regulatory modes of the biomedical sciences.

Eric Gagnon (2010) concludes that “the time seems to me to have moved ethics committees from a role of examiner and referee to a role of animation and discussion.”

How to do ? Rather than standardized forms and other checklists , Martin Tolich and Maureen Fitzgerald (2006) propose that ethics committees focus on four open-ended questions:

  • What is the research project?
  • According to the researcher, what are the ethical issues raised by this project?
  • How does the researcher propose to solve them?
  • What alternatives are planned in case the research project changes after its validation and launch?

In any case, these issues are considered by most experts to be fully related to the entire research system. The invitation is therefore made to the SHS to analyze them and to provide solutions in a global way. This is what many institutions, such as the French Society of Management (SFM), initiated in a round table organized by us and transcribed in Aegis’ Le libellio (pp. 45-53).

Author Bios: Yoann Bazin is a Research Professor in Management Sciences at the Normandy School of Management – UGEI and Julienne Brabet is Emeritus Professor in Management Sciences at Paris-Est Créteil Val de Marne University (UPEC)