Obstacles to researching the researchers: a case study of the ethical challenges of undertaking methodological research investigating the reporting of randomised controlled trials.
BACKGROUND: Recent cohort studies of randomised controlled trials have provided evidence of within-study selective reporting bias; where statistically significant outcomes are more likely to be more completely reported compared to non-significant outcomes. Bias resulting from selective reporting can impact on meta-analyses, influencing the conclusions of systematic reviews, and in turn, evidence based clinical practice guidelines.In 2006 we received funding to investigate if there was evidence of within-study selective reporting in a cohort of RCTs submitted to New Zealand Regional Ethics Committees in 1998/99. This research involved accessing ethics applications, their amendments and annual reports, and comparing these with corresponding publications. We did not plan to obtain informed consent from trialists to view their ethics applications for practical and scientific reasons. In November 2006 we sought ethical approval to undertake the research from our institutional ethics committee. The Committee declined our application on the grounds that we were not obtaining informed consent from the trialists to view their ethics application. This initiated a seventeen month process to obtain ethical approval. This publication outlines what we planned to do, the issues we encountered, discusses the legal and ethical issues, and presents some potential solutions. DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION: Methodological research such as this has the potential for public benefit and there is little or no harm for the participants (trialists) in undertaking it. Further, in New Zealand, there is freedom of information legislation, which in this circumstance, unambiguously provided rights of access and use of the information in the ethics applications. The decision of our institutional ethics committee defeated this right and did not recognise the nature of this observational research. Methodological research, such as this, can be used to develop processes to improve quality in research reporting. Recognition of the potential benefit of this research in the broader research community, and those who sit on ethics committees, is perhaps needed. In addition, changes to the ethical review process which involve separation between those who review proposals to undertake methodological research using ethics applications, and those with responsibility for reviewing ethics applications for trials, should be considered. Finally, we contend that the research community could benefit from quality improvement approaches used in allied sectors.
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