The University of Sydney has found researchers who sent emails under fictitious names to gauge bias among academic recipients acted in “good faith.”
Earlier this year Benjamin Goldsmith and Megan Mackenzie conducted an experiment for their project, “An open door: experimental measurement of potential bias in informal pathways to academia.” They sent messages under “different sender names” to “a large number of academics across Australia,” to test response rates.
The project had ethics committee approval but when the fiction became known outrage ensured among researchers who felt duped. The university suspended the project in June and set up an inquiry.
Yesterday DVC R Duncan Ivison reported its results. “The hypothesis was important and valid and the researchers sought and followed ethical approval for their study. I found also that the (human research ethics committee) acted in good faith whilst considering the proposal. There were vigorous debates at several HREC meetings around the use of deception, the conditions for waiver of consent and ability for participants to withdraw,” he emailed.
However, he added, committee and researchers “did not foresee the impact the study had on participants and the volume and strength of the complaints that were made.”
Professor Ivison tells unhappy participants in the project they can have their responses pulled and that further research is stopped. If Mackenzie and Goldsmith want to work with the data they now have they must apply to the HREC for approval.
“We have all learned valuable lessons from the concerns raised and will use them to improve both our approval process and the support and training we provide to researchers. With the benefit of hindsight, significant improvements could be made both to the way that the research was developed and conducted and to the way in which it was reviewed and approved,” Professor Ivison wrote.