Concerning a study on teleological thinking (Saksnr. 2013/155)

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The Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and Humanities (NESH) has been approached by a researcher at NTNU concerning the research project “Teleological thinking”. The design is not described in detail in the received documents, but it seems clear that the general aim of the study is to investigate possible connections between teleological thinking, a tendency to reach conclusions prematurely, and experiences of powerlessness. The researcher wants to use his own students as participants in the project, and informs the committee that he does not wish to allow them to refuse to participate unless their reasons for doing so match a given shortlist (illness etc).

The consent form also reveals that the plan is not to reveal details concerning design and purpose.

NESH considers the first of these two issues—the lack of voluntary consent—to be the most essential in this case. As the committee has on previous occasions communicated to the researcher (our ref. 2011/205, letter dated 9 February, 2012; our ref. 2012/168, letter dated 28 September, 2012), the recruitment of one’s own students is in principle fraught with ethical challenges. In this project, part of the design is to deny the students their right to refuse participation on any grounds. This would constitute a clear breach with the principle of voluntary informed consent, and cannot be recommended by the committee (cf. Guidelines for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences, Law and the Humanities, §9).

The brief description of the study does not, however, indicate that the withholding of information from the research participants forms a major ethical challenge in this instance. The information in question seems to be of a relatively innocent nature. Since a full description of the design and purpose of the study in advance would undermine the validity of the data, the withholding of information seems justified, as long as these aspects of the study are explained in greater detail to the participants after the experiment has been carried out.

NESH’s assessment presupposes that no personal information is to be collected as part of the study. If this is not the case, the researcher is obliged by law to report to the Norwegian Social Science Data Services before initiating the project. In this connection, it is also potentially relevant that the literature shared with the committee along with the project description indicates correspondence between certain test results and certain forms of mental suffering. If there is a risk that the collected data and results will be of a sensitive nature if they are traced back to individuals, extra caution on the part of the researcher is naturally required in order to ensure there is no risk of this.

As the most critical aspect of the study seems to be the desire to limit the voluntariness of the students’ participation, NESH attaches a statement to BI which deals with closely related issues.

On behalf of The Norwegian National Committee for Research Ethics in the Social Sciences and Humanities,

Bjørn Hvinden
Committee leader, NESH

Hallvard J. Fossheim
Director, NESH