The PRO-RES Framework for Ethical Evidence

The PRO-RES Project has produced a guidance FRAMEWORK that encourages policymakers and their advisors to seek evidence for their decisions from research that has been conducted ethically, responsibly and with integrity. This normative framework includes the following elements:

This framework is based upon principles of normative ethics which refers to the grounds of meaning or acceptance of decisions about why certain behaviour is right or wrong. The varieties of normative ethics are typified as primarily deontological (see deontological ethics) or teleological (see teleological ethics). This is about the way one ought to behave as a researcher. Normative principles have been established over time from considering moral choices at an abstract level in ethical theorising, from the codes of behaviour established by professional institutions and from the observation in practice of what happens when research is done for the ‘wrong’ reasons or in ‘incorrect’ ways as well as observing the benefits from doing research the ‘right’ way. Thus theorising about ethics can never be divorced from the application of principles in practice (La Follette 2002: 8). (La Follette, H. (ed.) (2002) Ethics in Practice: An Anthology, Oxford: Blackwell) (Case examples). The central point about normative ethics is that it entails value judgements and how one chooses to behave as a researcher can never be proven right or wrong by appealing to empirical facts. The role of normative ethics is not to recommend any particular course of action but to set out possibilities, help to assess values and assist in the making of informed, thoughtful choices (Thompson 2000: 30–2).Thompson, M. (2000) Ethics (Teach Yourself Series), London: Hodder Headline.

  1. A statement – The  Accord  – which lays out the principles for ethical research which we hope all stakeholders can sign up to and endorse. The statement is for all who are concerned to ensure policies are based upon ethical evidence.
  2. A Toolbox  to supplement the Accord for policy makers and advisors to help them identify ethical evidence for their decision-making processes
  3. Additional supportive Resources  that complement the Accord and the Toolbox.

Together these three ‘pillars’ comprise a normative FRAMEWORK that will support policies constructed on ethical evidence, cover the wide spectrum of non-medical research and offer practical solutions for all evidence-seeking stakeholders, that will comply with the highest standards of research ethics and integrity. The Framework has been explored and tested with the appropriate constituencies and across the full range of stakeholders. These include the producers of research, disseminators and intermediaries, influencers, policy advisers, decision-makers and implementers.

To answer the “Who is this for?” question: it is for policymakers keen to use ethical evidence; it is for policy advisors seeking to offer advice based on responsible sources; it is for researchers and their funders wishing to make sure that policies will be based upon their ethically produced evidence; it is for think tanks wishing to enhance their legitimacy by demonstrating that their reports have been produced with integrity and it is also available for citizens to make their own assessment about the evidential sources of the policies that directly affect them. Learn more about us in youtube.

GOOD RESEARCH: BETTER POLICIES

THE ACCORD

(on ethical evidence in research)

As signatories to the Accord

  • We recognize that an underpinning by high quality research, analysis and evidence, including policy appraisals and evaluations, is a pre-condition for evidence-based policy-/decision-making, and hence rational policy actions and effective outcomes.
  • As individuals and institutions involved in commissioning, funding, sponsoring or conducting research, collecting or using evidence for policymaking, we aim to be as transparent as possible on how the high quality of that evidence is assured and will flag up any potential conflicts of interest.
  • We agree that to a reasonable degree the independence and integrity of individuals responsible for the conducting and/or gathering of research evidence and its use in policymaking must be respected and supported in ways that ensure the evidence they produce is neither biased nor misleading.
  • We will communicate, employ and/or apply only high quality evidence, research or enquiry, in other words evidence that has been undertaken, gathered, collated and analyzed using sound, robust and ethical methods appropriate to the task.
  • We will ensure that the commissioning, funding, management, conduct, dissemination and governance of research meet high standards of ethics and integrity.

OUR RATIONALE: Good research will help produce better policies. Decision takers and policymakers should be seeking evidence to support their work from the range of expertise on offer. Sound, reliable, transparent research, not driven by ideology or subservient to it and undeclared vested interests, produces robust evidence that can benefit social wellbeing and societal progress. It is in the interests of the scientific community to ensure the evidence produced is reliable and trustworthy and ethically generated. It is in the interests of those who make policy to be able to assure the decision takers (and the general public) that evidence has been generated in the best possible way.

The following points explain the rationale behind the Accord and how it fits into the normative framework – the rationale for which is explained here:

Most of the codes and guidelines for research ethics and integrity are constructed on the basis of a normative prescription or a ‘duty-based’ as opposed to a ‘rights-based’ morality. Although one could conceive of an alternate guidance structure based on rights, it would be much harder to apply since rights are more difficult to define and operationalise and, in practice, are more inclined to conflict with each other. It would certainly be confusing (as it is with the current mix of rights and duties in European law) to try reconcile a ‘rights’ approach with ‘duties’ under the law, to ethics and to the research profession. The comparison of rights-based and duty-based moralities brings out the problem of all ethical principles being in tension. The writers of codes and guidelines are constantly trying to reconcile such tensions – any right to be informed will always be contradicted by a right for data not to be disclosed. It would only take one respondent in many datasets to seek anonymity for the rest to have to be anonymised – thus restricting its availability – even perhaps for tests of validity and reliability to be conducted by other researchers. The PRO-RES approach was always based on resourcing reflective practice rather than on formal bureaucratic compliance. And this approach was vindicated in all the work done with stakeholders. The framework was constructed by drawing upon the views and ideas of the full range of key stakeholders in an iterative process. It has built upon previous foundational research ethics codes, guidelines and frameworks in an assessment of what elements of these foundations have ‘worked’ in influencing and informing policymaking in the past.We advocated from the outset that the framework should come in the form of advice and ‘guidelines’ rather than a prescriptive or sanctionable code together with a practical toolbox both to identify best practices (checklists) and to provide models in order to measure the impact of non-deployment of such best practices. This must be promoted as a ‘what works’ approach. Experience suggests that the more regulatory a code, the more malpractice is encouraged if othe institutional and/or infrastructural pressures not to behave ‘well’ remain unaddressed. This represents a pragmatically-oriented ‘virtue ethics’ approach; one that encourages and rewards responsible conduct in researchers and their employing and/or funding institutions. This too was endorsed in our interactions with the full range of stakeholders. It is always possible to construct prescriptive codes if the power to apply sanctions, such as restricting access to funds or delegitimising the ability to offer research services – we offer one such suggestion here.
Links are supplied to supportive resources that will help in seeking to promote ethics and integrity in the evidence produced in all non-medical research.

Here the Accord statements are repeated with explanations to ensure that the meanings behind the statement is clear.

We recognize that an underpinning by high quality research, analysis and evidence, including policy appraisals and evaluations, is a pre-condition for evidence-based policy-/decision-making, and hence rational policy actions and effective outcomes.

What this means:

  • Under a commitment to evidence-based policy, all evidence should be based as far as possible on ethically sound research and analysis. This applies to all who are paying for the research to be conducted, those who do the research and those who make use of the research findings.
  • There are many forms of research and evidence. They include not just formal research projects and programmes, but a range of actions relating to investigation, collation, discovery, exploration, practice, and disciplinary development.
  • Research and analysis, in order to be seen as conducted ethically, should be beneficent (or at least non-maleficent) in its aims, its substantive focus, in the process of research, and its application.
  • High ethics standards in research can be found in the range of ethics codes and guidelines that are available and to the statements established as part of the PRO-RES Project.
  • Research, enquiry, analysis and policy advice should not be based on pre-formed prejudicial ideologies or biased political or financial interests.
  • Conflicts of interest should ideally be avoided in the production of evidence and in the provision of policy advice. If this is not possible, all conflicts of interest should be openly disclosed.

As individuals and institutions involved in commissioning, funding, sponsoring or conducting research, collecting or using evidence for policymaking, we aim to be as transparent as possible on how the high quality of that evidence is assured and will flag up any potential conflicts of interest.

What this means:

  • In order to produce high quality evidence, research and analysis must be methodologically robust.
  • Only research and enquiry that has also been conducted ethically and with integrity can be considered ‘high quality’.
  • It is clear that there may be limits to ‘transparency’ which may depend upon varying commitments, say, to funders and/or to research subjects. Recognition and declaration of those limits is consistent with a commitment to transparency.
  • Similarly, all participants to the research process (stakeholders) are likely to have some ‘vested’ interests, although such interests will not necessarily be ‘in conflict’. Interests should be declared (made transparent as much as possible) and any potential conflicts of interest declared.

We agree that to a reasonable degree the independence and integrity of individuals responsible for the conducting and/or gathering of research evidence and its use in policymaking must be respected and supported in ways that ensure that the evidence they produce is neither biased nor misleading.

What this means:

  • Whenever possible, all sources of information used to formulate evidence should be acknowledged, with exceptions being well-justified and, if feasible, noted (for instance in the case of confidential information or views).
  • The processes and institutions involved in the selection of evidence, including research, to inform policy should be as independent, open and transparent as possible. Thus the phrase’ reasonable degree’ acknowledges the difficulty of complete independence of action – for all stakeholders. This recognises that ‘independence’ is difficult to define and that inevitably has limits. No participant in the research and evidence-gathering process can be truly considered completely independent. Where constraints on independent action exist the nature and extent of such constraints need to be declared.
  • The effectiveness and impact of all policies should be honestly and transparently assessed or evaluated using high quality research and analytic methods.

We will communicate, employ and/or apply only high quality evidence, research or enquiry, in other words evidence that has been undertaken, gathered, collated and analyzed using sound, robust and ethical methods appropriate to the task.

What this means:

  • Ethical issues can arise at every stage of research: conception, development, proposal, process, conclusion and dissemination. It follows that ethical consideration cannot be a single-stage process; it has to be continuous.
  • Researchers and analysts have to be aware of, and sensitive to, the ethical dimensions of their work. That awareness depends on engagement in ethical discourse as an integral aspect of engagement in research and analysis. Ethical conduct cannot adequately be guaranteed by a fixed number of pre-set rules.
  • All researchers and analysts should aim to develop a culture of ethical enquiry, based on continuous discursive engagement. To achieve this, there has to be engagement of everyone responsible for the process, including researchers, analysts, stakeholders, peers and the users of research.

We will ensure that the commissioning, funding, management, conduct, dissemination and governance of research meet high standards of ethics and integrity.

What this means:

  • All research should be funded, managed, conducted and disseminated ethically and with integrity. All those involved in the research process – from original idea to findings and applications of results – share responsibility for ethical practice and outcomes.

How to implement The Accord: Recommendations

To help implement the Accord and the principles behind it users need to know:

How to conduct research ethically and with integrity (for researchers, managers and funders).

How to ensure research is conducted ethically and with integrity (for reviewers in research ethics appraisal).

How to supply evidence for effective policymaking (for researchers, managers, funders).

How to select good quality research (for science/policy advisors and policymakers).

How to evaluate the ethical impact of policies (for ALL above stakeholders).

Please go to the Toolbox for more details

How to assess that evidence is ethical?

How to check if the ‘Evidence Generating Organisation’ (EGO) has acted with integrity?

The key ethical questions to be asked about any research output, scientific finding, evidence-based policy advice or similar are:

WHO did WHAT to WHOM, WHEN, WHERE, HOW and WHY?

AND how were the findings PUBLISHED, DISSEMINATED &/or APPLIED?


AND what were the CONSEQUENCES of the use to which the findings were put? (EVALUATION)

By seeking the answers to these questions, it is possible to make a judgment about how ethically the research/analysis was conducted and if the researchers/analysts/advisors behaved with integrity. We provide you with a Toolbox that covers all of these elements. These are questions that can be asked of any EGO to judge how ethical their work is. We also provide some examples of the Toolbox ‘in use’.