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Intriguing insights from Wits Global Ethics Day colloquium

- Wits University

The annual ethics colloquium, which celebrates ethical practices, this year interrogated ideas and studies that challenged Research Ethics Committees recently.

In Artificial Intelligence (AI) development, new ethics questions constantly arise. For instance, some AI-enabled applications used in human resources incorporate biases that discriminate against women, non-binary persons and ethnic minorities.

Similarly, social media, an arena that provides abundant naturally-occurring data on various topics, raises new research ethics challenges.

These are just two of many fascinating insights shared at the ethics colloquium hosted by Wits University, on Global Ethics Day, 5 May 2022. Wits partnered with the Southern African Research and Innovation Management Association (SARIMA) and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.

Chaired by Eleni Flack-Davison who heads Wits’ Research Integrity Office, the event brought together practitioners from research sectors across southern Africa to discuss key themes that have recently challenged Research Ethics Committees (RECs).  Wits University, currently celebrating its centenary, has the oldest established REC in the country.

Participants were welcomed by Dr Robin Drennan, Director of Research and Innovation at Wits. Flack-Davison provided a brief exposition on Ethics and Research Innovation at Wits.

SARIMA Vice-Chair Dr Anna Matros-Goreses presented an organisational overview, emphasising SARIMA’s communities of best practice, and underlining the role of ethics in producing impactful research and innovative products. A mini ethics and integrity conference is scheduled for early August, linking to the national SARIMA Conference.

Discussing the readability of documents required for securing ethics clearance, Professor Jennifer Watermeyer, HREC non-Medical Co-Chair at Wits, asserted that cultural differences and language barriers inhibit understanding of terminology, particularly when documents are not in the participants’ home language.

“The readability of ethics consent forms is a small thing that can make such a huge difference,” said Watermeyer.  

Comprehension of concepts like confidentiality, anonymity and placebo is key to ensuring research integrity. Watermeyer highlighted a 2021 study where two thirds of the 75 different consent forms failed to meet the South African readability standard.

“Which really means we are not doing enough to ensure that the materials we provide to potential participants are readable,” Watermeyer concluded, noting that small tweaks can enhance readability, e.g. using short sentences and simple, jargon-free language pitched at the appropriate level.

Professor Edmarie Pretorius from Wits Department of Social Work posed the question, “Why are social media platforms growing in popularity and becoming more attractive to researchers?”

She explained that social media “is a primary location for people to network, to socialise and to reflect on all aspects of everyday life … And it provides immense opportunities for researchers to access user-generated content.”

But researchers using social media must think harder and deeper about ethics, since these platforms often provide personal and intimate details. A heuristic [that which enables someone to discover or learn something for themselves] for ethics in social media research should consider the public versus the private, and the treatment of persons (taking cognisance of gender, ethnicity etc.) as well as data. Thus, an ethics of care is indicated, with concomitant support systems.

Dr Martin Bekker’s presentation on AI and ethics highlighted beneficence, justice and autonomy as core values. Wits Engineering Faculty promotes a combination of deontological and teleological approaches. When proposing new research or innovations, engineers are encouraged to ask six key questions which interrogate the potential societal benefits and losses; privacy and storage of data; potential behaviour modifications; and the dangers of commodification.

Bekker emphasised that we all consent to being tracked online via AI-enabled devices, raising ethics implications regarding privacy, ownership and storage of data.

“What are the biases in (specific) algorithms?” Bekker asked. “Data that is used to train machine-learning algorithms has racist and sexist legacies.”

For instance, Amazon’s employment screening machine-learning was initially trained on male engineers, which resulted in only males being appointed because the data was sexist.

Bekker also flagged technology that prioritises engagement over thoughtfulness; with compulsive behaviour “almost baked into algorithms linked to emotional dependency.”

Commodification through AI research merits ethics analysis. Fitness and health devices have commodified personal health, while dating sites have commodified love. Facebook’s algorithm knowingly exploits teenage angst for engagement. Another concern is ethics dumping, e.g. AI applications aimed at influencing elections are ‘trialled’ in less-regulated jurisdictions in Africa before being used in the West.

A summary of ethics in animal research was presented by Lebo Sentle, the NSPCA’s Animal Welfare Representative. Regular monitoring throughout the research period ensures that animals used in teaching and research receive humane and compassionate treatment. Alternatives to animal research and the use of refined research methods are preferred. Sentle encouraged RECs to carefully weigh the harms-benefit analysis for research involving animals.  The elimination of carbon-dioxide use and a decrease in research using primates are two recent gains based on ethical considerations.

Dr Nitien Naran, HREC Medical Co-Chair at Wits, concluded the seminar with a presentation on laboratory ethics during a pandemic. Since the burden of disease increases exponentially during a pandemic, public health research is prioritised.

“Ethical evaluation of public health research is particularly challenging, as it is aimed at finding out what is best for the communities and the population, rather than for individuals,” Naran noted. “RECs are often faced with new and very complex challenges, particularly when evaluating the overall benefits and risks of the proposed research.”

During a pandemic, research is undertaken without individual informed consent. Thus, RECs may receive requests for retrospective clearances. They need to carefully consider the merits, and in ongoing studies, participants must consent to further research, with an option to withdraw should they wish to.

Naran’s presentation sparked discussion around the ethics and costs of vaccine provision to Africa during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Overall, there was a rich breadth of themes interrogated and a high level of engagement, with over 170 participants attending the colloquium.