Identifying individuals while protecting privacy

August 24, 2016

Pär SegerdahlResearch ethics is complex and requires considering issues from several perspectives simultaneously. I’ve written about the temptation to reduce research ethics to pure protection ethics. Then not as much needs to be kept in mind. Protection is the sole aim, and thinking begins to resemble the plot of an adventure film where the hero finally sets the hostages free.

Protection is of course central to research ethics and there are cases where one is tempted to say that research participants are taken hostage by unscrupulous scientists. Like when a group of African-American men with syphilis were recruited to a research study, but weren’t treated because the researchers wanted to study the natural course of the disease.

Everyday life is not one big hostage drama, however, which immediately makes the issues more complex. The researcher is typically not the villain, the participant is not the victim, and the ethicist is not the hero who saves the victim from the villain. What is research ethics in everyday situations?

There is currently a growing concern that coding of personal data and biospecimens doesn’t sufficiently protect research participants from privacy invasions. Hackers hired to test the security of research databases have in some cases been able to identify the individuals who provided their personal data to research (in the belief that the link to them had been made inaccessible to outsiders through advanced coding procedures). Such re-identified information can obviously harm participants, if it falls into the wrong hands.

What is the task of research ethics here? Suddenly we can begin to discern the outlines of a drama in which the participant risks becoming the victim, the researcher risks becoming the villain’s accomplice, and the ethicist rushes onto the scene and rescues the victim by making personal data in research databases completely anonymous, impossible to identify even for researchers.

But everyday life hasn’t collapsed yet. Perhaps we should keep a cool head and ask: Why are personal data and biological samples not fully anonymized, but coded so that researchers can identify individual patients/research participants? The answer is that it’s necessary to achieve scientific results (and to provide individual patients the right care). Discovering relationships between genetics, lifestyle and disease requires running several registries together. Genetic data from the biobank may need to be linked to patient records in healthcare. The link is the individual, who therefore must be identifiable to the research, through the use of advanced code keys.

The need to identify participants is particularly evident in research on rare diseases. Obviously, there is only scant data on these diseases. The data needs to be shared between research groups, often in different countries, in order to collect enough data for patterns to appear, which can lead to diagnoses and treatments.

An overly dramatic heroic effort to protect privacy would have its own victims.

In an article in the European Journal of Human Genetics, Mats G. Hansson and co-authors develop a different, more sustainable ethical response to the risk of re-identification.

Respecting and protecting participants’ privacy is, of course, a central concern in the article. But protection isn’t the only perspective, since science and health care are ethical values too. And here you need to be able to identify participants. The task the authors assume, then, is that of discussing the risks of re-identification, while simultaneously considering the needs for identifiable data.

The authors are, in other words, looking for a balance between different values: simply because identifiable data are associated with both risks and benefits.

You can read a summary of the article on the CRB website. What I focus on in this post is the authors’ overall approach to research ethics, which doesn’t emphasize the hero/villain/victim opposition of certain dramatic situations.

The public image of research ethics is very much shaped by its function in response to research scandals. But research ethics is usually, and less dramatically, about making everyday life function ethically in a society which contains research. Making everyday life run smoothly is a more complex and important task than playing the hero when everyday life breaks down. In this work, more values and challenges need to be taken into account simultaneously than in emergency scenarios where ethicists, very naturally, focus on protection.

Everyday life may not be as exciting as a research scandal, but if we don’t first and foremost take responsibility for making everyday life work smoothly, as a complex whole, then we can expect more drama.

Keep a cool head and consider the issues from a variety of perspectives!

Pär Segerdahl

Hansson, M. G. et al. The risk of re-identification versus the need to identify individuals in rare disease research. European Journal of Human Genetics, advance online publication, 25 May 2016; doi: 10.1038/ejhg.2016.52

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Research ethics is not only protection ethics

June 6, 2016

Pär SegerdahlSystems for ethical review of research would never have been developed if it were not for the need to protect research participants from being exploited, exposed to excessive risks, or injured.

Considering how several research scandals strengthened this protection motive, it is easy to believe that protection is the sole aim of research ethics. This is not the case.

The starting point has always been that research is something worthwhile; something ethically important. Medical research provides knowledge that can lead to better diagnoses and more effective treatments. The humanities and social sciences can provide knowledge that supports more informed debates and more thoughtful political decisions.

Ethics review is about striking a balance between ethical values. Are the risks in proportion to the value of the research? Are the risks minimized, or can the research questions be examined more safely? Are research participants properly informed about the research purpose and the risks that participation might entail? Do they get the opportunity to freely decide whether to participate or not?

The “novelty” of research ethics is thus the balancing of ethical values. It’s not that ethical values are turned against research, for research itself is regarded as an ethical value. Also researchers are learning to balance values when they plan their research. The balancing is done not only in the review system, then, but pervades research itself more and more.

Doing the balancing is rarely easy. Moreover, as already mentioned, it is easy to overlook the starting point: that research is regarded as a value. This invites interpreting research ethics as pure protection ethics, which threatens to make ethics review one-sided.

For these reasons, well-written manuals are needed for members of ethical review boards, and for researchers. Manuals that not only inform about regulations and legislation, but also discuss the difficulties of balancing ethical values, and highlight how research ethics is “balance ethics” and not just protection ethics (except when protection law applies).

A new book, Balanced Ethics Review (Springer 2016), by Simon N. Whitney, is such a manual. It is written from within the American review system. But by openly discussing the difficulties of balancing ethical values, and by bringing to the fore how research ethics functions as “balance ethics,” the book has greater universality. – Perhaps precisely where the need for guidance is greatest.

Pär Segerdahl

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Critique of the motivation for dynamic consent to biobank research

March 23, 2016

Pär SegerdahlBiobank research has undeniably challenged research ethics and the requirement for informed consent. We are after all dealing with collection of biological samples for future, yet unspecified research. Thus, one cannot give donors specific information about the research in which their samples will be used. It might seem like asking them to consent to unknown research projects x, y, z.

While some argue that broad consent for future research is specific enough to be genuine consent to something – one can inform about the framework that applies to the research – others argue that biobank research undermines the autonomy of research participants. Something must therefore be done about it.

Dynamic consent is such a proposed measure. The idea is that participants in biobank research, through a website, will be kept continuously informed about planned research, and continually make decisions about their participation. Through this IT measure, participants are placed at the center of decision making process rather than transferring all power to the researchers. Dynamic consent empowers research participants and supports their autonomy, it is claimed.

In an article in the journal Bioethics, Linus Johnsson and Stefan Eriksson critically examine the understanding of autonomy in the debate on dynamic consent.

First, the authors argue that autonomy is misunderstood as a feat. Autonomy is rather a right people have to decide for themselves what to do in situations that matter to them.

Second, they argue that the concept of autonomy is used too broadly, hiding important distinctions. In fact, three different ways of respecting people are conflated:

  1. Autonomy: respecting people’s right to decide for themselves about what to do.
  2. Integrity: respecting people’s right to draw the lines between private and social life.
  3. Authority: respecting people’s right to take responsibility for themselves, for their families, and for their relations to society.

Authority is respected by empowering people: by giving them the tools they need to live responsibly. In dynamic consent, the website is such a tool. It empowers participants to act as responsible citizens concerning the planning and carrying out of research in society.

By separating three forms of respect which are confused as “autonomy,” the authors can propose the following critical analysis of the motivation for dynamic consent. Rather than respecting people’s right to decide for themselves about what to do, the aim is to empower them. But if the empowerment forces them to sit in front of the computer to be informed, it violates their integrity.

Such intrusion could be justified if medical research were a suitable arena for people’s empowerment as citizens – an assumption which the authors point out is doubtful.

Pär Segerdahl

Johnson, L. and Eriksson, S. 2016. “Autonomy is a right, not a feat: How theoretical misconceptions have muddled the debate on dynamic consent to biobank research.” Bioethics, DOI: 10.1111/bioe.12254

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Macchiarini and the spirit of fraudulence

February 10, 2016

Pär SegerdahlI assume you heard of Paolo Macchiarini, the “star surgeon” who, with the willpower of a general, simply would win a great battle at the frontline of research – by creating new tracheae using the patients’ own stem cells. That the endeavor had costs in terms of a few soldiers’ or patients’ lives is sad, but some losses must be accepted if one is to win a major battle in the service of cutting-edge experimental research.

It is difficult to avoid such an interpretation of Macchiarini’s mindset, after seeing the Swedish TV-documentaries about him (“Experimenten”/”The Experiments”). You feel the presence of a dominating iron will to carry out a plan and to win. It feeds a warlike spirit in which collegial doubts must be suppressed because they corrupt the morale and slow down the march forward, toward the frontline.

Truth is, as we know, the first casualty of war. Losses must be described as successes, in order not to lose readiness for action in the final battle – which, of course, will be won, don’t for a moment doubt that! The condition of patients who after surgery barely can breathe must thus be described as if the surgery had given them a nearly normal respiratory function. Macchiarini’s misconduct follows the logic of war.

Imagine this rigid winner, waiting impatiently for patients for whom his unproven methods (with some good will) could be interpreted as a last chance to survive. Does he approach the patients as a doctor who wants to offer a last treatment option? Hardly, but the possibility of interpreting the situation in such a way takes him to the frontline: he gets the opportunity to operate on them.

Does he then relate to the patients as a researcher to his participants? Not that either. For the treatment is only improvised in the heat of battle and can hardly even be called experimental; and all failures will be covered up by more scientific fraudulence.

The fact that research ethics developed in the shadow of the Second World War is hardly a coincidence. Something that worries in the Macchiarini case is that research itself – with its competition for funding and more – obviously can be animated by a warlike and strategic spirit of winning, which corrupts individuals as well as institutions…

It goes without saying that suspected research misconduct should not be investigated by the universities themselves; that there is a need for an independent body that handles such matters.

Pär Segerdahl

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Articles may be retracted if ethics is neglected

September 30, 2015

Pär SegerdahlWhen a scientific article is retracted, it means that the article should never have been published and that data and conclusions from the study should not be used to underpin future research.

Articles are often retracted when it is found that the authors acted fraudulently. They may have been careless, or cheated, or have plagiarized someone else’s (or their own!) previous work. Retracted articles may still be available for reading, but with a notice that they are retracted, and with explanations of the reasons behind the decision.

A rarer and less known reason to retract scientific articles is that the study reported does not satisfy ethical requirements for the protection of research participants.

Human research participation should be voluntary and research on humans must first be approved by an ethical review board. Editors of medical journals are bound by the same requirements. They increasingly require that authors state that the research they want to publish has an ethics approval.

How common is it that published articles are retracted because ethical requirements were neglected? How do editors motivate their decision? And what happens afterwards – are the articles cited and used despite the retraction?

Ethical retractions are uninvestigated, but in an article in the journal Accountability in Research Yusuke Inoue (former guest researcher at CRB) and Kaori Muto, present a study of articles retracted for ethical reasons:

One difficulty they mention is that unethical research may still produce scientifically valid data, results and conclusions – although neglect of ethics is a strong warning sign that other demands may have been neglected. Editors must therefore strike a balance between the requirement to retrospectively protect research participants and the scientific value of the article and its results. And if one decides to retract the article for ethical reasons, the research study may have to be repeated with new participants, which is also ethically problematic.

Yusuke Inoue and Kaori Muto studied retracted medical papers in English in the period 1981-2011. They found that the first ethical retractions did not occur until 2000 (2 articles). The number was then relatively constant (14 articles 2001-2010), but increased dramatically in 2011 (83 articles) – most of them related to a research scandal around anesthesiology researcher Joachim Boldt.

Most retraction notices stated as reason for the decision, simply “lack of ethical review.” However, editors rarely explained the decision more closely, for example, if they judged that the whole study was fraudulent, or judged that the study was well done but lacked ethical review. It then becomes unclear how to assess the contents of the retracted article.

Inoue and Muto also found that the majority of articles that were retracted for ethical reasons continued to be quoted. In some cases, it could be established that citations were deliberately misleading (as when authors cite their own retracted articles without mentioning that they are retracted). In other cases, however, retracted articles were cited perfectly legitimately, to specify that data from them had been excluded.

Inoue and Muto’s conclusion is that editors need to explain more clearly the reason behind their ethical retractions, so that future researchers can better assess the content of the articles. Moreover, discussion is needed on how data from articles that were retracted for ethical reasons may be used.

While we’re discussing scientific misconduct, I take the opportunity to link to an American dissertation that shows that often when misconduct is revealed by the Office of Research Integrity, it does not lead to the retraction of articles:

The number of retracted articles thus gives a poor measure of the extent of scientific misconduct. There are many “fraudulent articles” in circulation!

Pär Segerdahl

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Ethics research keeps ethical practices alive (new dissertation)

August 25, 2015

Pär SegerdahlI have in two posts complained about a tendency of ethical practices to begin to idle, as if they were ends in themselves.

A risk with the tendency is that bioethics is discredited and attacked as no more than an unhappy hindrance to novel research.

Like when Steven Pinker recently wrote that the primary moral goal for bioethics today should be:

But there is a way to go: self-scrutinizing ethics research.

Bioethics is often misunderstood as merely a fixed and finished framework of ethical rules, principles and review systems: as a cumbersome bureaucracy. I guess that is how Pinker understands it.

But first, the “framework” is the result of novel ethical thinking at a time when we had reason to rethink the position of science. Doing research is important, but it does not justify exploiting research participants. There are other values ​​than Science, which scientists should take seriously.

Secondly, this ethical thinking will never be finished. There are always new problems to subject to self-scrutinizing ethics research.

Not infrequently these problems are occasioned by the bioethical framework. Pregnant women and children are routinely excluded from research, on ethical grounds. But does not the protection of these groups as research participants mean that they are exposed to risks as patients? If new drugs are tested only on adult males, we don’t know what doses a pregnant woman or an infant should receive.

We need self-critical ethics research, to keep ethics alive and to avoid idling.

Therefore, I formulate a different imperative than the one Steven Pinker suggests. Bioethics main goal should be: Think anew, reflect critically, do ethics research!

We follow that imperative at CRB. An example is Tove Godskesen’s thesis,

which will be defended on Friday, August 28, at 09:15, in room A1:107a at BMC (Biomedical Centre, Husargatan 3, Uppsala, Sweden).

This thesis is not about standing in the way of cancer research, but about doing empirical-ethical research to examine how well the ethical practices work when cancer patients are recruited as participants in such forms of research.

Do the patients understand the information they receive about the research? Do they understand that the possibility that they will be cured through research participation is extremely low? Do they understand that cancer research involves certain risks? Do they understand what a randomized study is?

And why do they volunteer as research participants? Because they hope for a new miracle drug? Because they want to help future patients? As thanks for the help they received? Because they feel a duty towards relatives, or because of (perceived) expectations from the doctor?

All these questions are empirically studied in the thesis.

Godskesen’s dissertation also contains reflections on the concept of hope. Her empirical studies show that it is precisely the patients with the least chance to be cured – those who don’t have much time left, and who usually are asked to participate in Phase 1 clinical studies – who primarily are motivated by the hope of a cure, at the last moment.

How should we view this fact? Does it mean that these participants misunderstand the study they have chosen to participate in, and thus participate on false premises? Or is it a hope which gives meaning at the end of life, a hope which might be nourished even if you understand the study design?

These are questions we cannot “step out of the way” of. Tove Godskesen does not step out of their way. Come and listen on Friday (but observe that the examination will be conducted in Swedish)!

Pär Segerdahl

In dialogue with patients


Openness as an ethical ritual

August 3, 2015

Pär SegerdahlBarbara A. Koenig wrote last year about how informed consent has acquired a “liturgical feel” in biomedical research ethics. Each time the protection of research participants is challenged by new forms of research, the answer is: more consent!

The procedure of informing and asking for consent may feel like assuming a priestly guise and performing an ethical ritual with the research participant.

The ritual is moreover sometimes practically impossible to implement. For example, if one is to inform participants in genetic research about incidental findings that might be made about them, so that they can decide whether they want to be re-contacted if researchers happen to discover “something” about them.

If it takes one hour to inform a patient about his or her actual genetic disease, how long would it take to inform a research participant of all possible kinds of genetic disease risks that might be discovered? Sorry, not just one participant, but hundreds of thousands.

How then can research participants be respected as humans, if informed consent has become like an empty ritual with the poor participant? (A ritual that in genetic research sometimes is impracticable.)

In the August issue of Nature, Misha Angrist suggests a solution: we treat participants as partners in the research process, by being open to them. How are we open to them? By offering them the researchers’ genetic raw data, which can be handed over to them as an electronic file.

Here we are not talking about interpreted genetic disease risks, but of heaps of genetic raw data that are utterly meaningless for research participants.

Openness often has important functions. Making scientific articles openly accessible so that everyone can read them has a function. Making researchers’ data available to other researchers so that they can critically review research, or use already collected data in new research, has a function.

But offering files with genetic raw data to research participants, what is its function? Is it really the beginning of a beautiful partnership?

Openness and partnership seem here to become yet another ethical ritual; yet another universal solution to ethical difficulties.

Pär Segerdahl

We think about bioethics : www.ethicsblog.crb.uu.se


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