To help their scholars and researchers address ethical dimensions of their work, leading universities offer research ethics consultation services. Such services first emerged to help clinical investigators address ethical questions about study design, participant recruitment, and informed consent. Subsequently, ethics consultation has proved helpful in bench science, technology design and testing, applied and translational research, community-engaged research, and the social sciences. Even humanities scholars can face ethical questions about how to frame and pursue their research questions.
The research ethics consultation service (RECS) serves Pitt’s research community: scholars, researchers and members of research teams, as well as research oversight committee members. The RECS is not a substitute for oversight committees and regulatory bodies, nor is consultation a substitute for reporting concerns to the appropriate University offices, external authorities or law enforcement. The RECS complements the work of these compliance-focused entities by helping members of the Pitt research community anticipate, identify and address ethical issues. Requests for consultation may be made by faculty, staff or students; contact RECS@pitt.edu.
What kinds of questions have been brought to RECS consultants?
Researchers have sought assistance, for example, in identifying the potential for “dual use” of their research findings, responding to comments from institutional review boards (IRBs), or addressing particular challenges in preparing Protection of Human Subjects Plans for research applications. Researchers have brought questions about using social media to conduct research, observing sensitive behaviors in semi-public places and framing research findings to avoid misunderstanding by the public.
Who staffs the RECS, and what background do they have?
The RECS is staffed by members of the Pitt research community who have experience and expertise in research ethics. They come to the RECS from a range of disciplines within the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Some initially sought ethics advice regarding their research and are now sufficiently confident of their ability to identify and analyze ethical concerns that they want to share their experience with others. Some questions brought to the RECS require consultation with others—at Pitt or nationally—who can bring additional expertise, experience or perspective to address the question presented.
Is consulting the RECS voluntary?
Yes. Consulting the RECS is voluntary and completely the prerogative of individual researchers, scholars and research teams. Also, a RECS consultation is not a substitute for applying for required approvals (e.g., from the IRB) or for complying with relevant laws and regulations. Researchers may consult the RESI resource page to help identify regulations and guidance that apply to their work.
Is consulting the RECS confidential?
In most cases, the identities of those requesting consultations, as well as research data, ideas and ethical issues can be kept confidential. Some consultations, however, may involve issues that require reporting concerns to appropriate authorities. These issues include cases of child abuse or sexual harassment, risks of serious self-harm or harm to others, and violations of research regulations or criminal conduct. RECS consultants may make a referral to an appropriate office within the University or authority outside of the University. Also, in the spirit of creating a conversation about research ethics across campus, researchers are encouraged to share their experience wrestling with ethical concerns with others through educational forums of the RESI.