By now most of you will be aware of the new regulations governing experimental procedures introduced by the UK research councils (and following on from similar changes already applied in Europe and the USA). For those of us conducting behavioural, social and cognitive neuroscience studies on human participants it will represent a major change in the way we conduct our experiments, treat our participants, collect our data, and develop our scientific models. The major changes have been introduced to ensure that behavioural and neuroscience research using human participants complies with a mixture of research council developments on the importance of social impact of funded research and the recent EU Court of Human Rights declarations on the rights and civil liberties of individuals as extended to human participants in experimental procedures.
The most obvious change is the introduction of regulations governing the nature and impact of distraction activities in psychological experiments. In an attempt to spread the social and economic impact of biological science research to activities that take place in the experimental procedure itself, experimenters will no longer have a free choice of distractor tasks (e.g. in memory experiments) or inter-task activities to present to their participants. Researchers will no longer be able to ask their participants to count backwards in threes to prevent rehearsal of learned material. Instead, participants must engage in an activity that represents a significant social or economic contribution. The ESRC website provides a number of examples of the socially and economically inclusive distractor tasks that can now be deployed, many of which are designed to directly benefit the institution in which the research is being conducted. These include asking participants to empty waste bins in faculty offices, mark first year lab reports, prepare sandwiches for senior management luncheon meetings, and chair student misconduct tribunals. Participants with specific vocational skills can be asked to use those skills during experimental distraction tasks, including fixing laboratory plumbing, vacuuming carpets, cooking lunch for university research employees/technicians (but not for postgraduate research students), etc. During inter-trial intervals participants educated to FE level should be urged to teach 50-min Level 1 and Level 2 undergraduate student seminars, and to write draft exam papers for finals resits. Given the dismay expressed by many researchers to these fundamental changes in research protocols, RCUK has expressed regret at not including behavioural and social science researchers in the consultation process for these changes, but confirms that discussions with Russell Group Vice-Chancellors proved to be very constructive and Vice-Chancellors were said to be unanimously supportive of the new changes.
However, the major change to research council approved experimental procedures results from recent changes to human rights legislation. No longer can participants be coerced to ‘respond as quickly as possible’ in reaction time and related studies nor can they be given a fixed time in which to recall previously learned material in memory-related experiments. According to the legislation all participants “…must be treated with equality and respect in such a way as to allow the individual to fully contemplate the various stimulus and response choice options available to them before executing a response – a response which in many cases may be final and irrevocable within the confines of the experimental procedure”. This, of course, will have major implications for many experimental procedures, including choice reaction-time studies, Implicit Association Tests, many lexical decision tasks, as well as response bias training procedures and homophone ambiguity tasks.
Of this latter group of changes, perhaps the one that will have the greatest impact on researchers is the abolition of the fixed recall period in memory tasks. In future all participants will be allowed as much time as they require to recall prior-learned material and word lists. Research council guidelines now specify that participants in such studies should be given the opportunity to recall experimental material “…over as extended a time period as is necessary and befits the status of the participant as a respected and valued member of society”. The minimum recall time now recommended by RCUK is one week, timed from the end of the learning phase of the study. These guidelines state that all participants must be given a stamped addressed envelop when leaving the laboratory so that they can jot down any material recalled in the week following the experiment and submit that material to the experimenter for proper inclusion in the study analysis. Similarly, participants can no longer be allocated to different experimental conditions on a random basis without prior consultation. All participants must be given an informed overview of each experimental condition and allowed a free choice of the condition in which they wish to participate. The participant also has the right to change this choice at any time after the study has begun, and also will have the choice to sample each of the conditions before making a decision on which group to participate in. Researchers in individual institutions are encouraged to hold regular ‘fairs’ for participants that advertise and provide examples of the various experimental conditions in their studies and which will allow participants to make a fully informed choice of the experimental conditions in which they would like to participate. Placebo conditions must now be clearly labeled as such for the participant and cake provided for the participant at the end of a placebo procedure to compensate for the lack of a psychologically/biologically potent component in the experimental condition. Also, any procedures that involve deception must be approved by a locally-appointed panel of civil rights legal advisors – at least one of whom must be a fully qualified and experienced teacher of qualitative methods.
For your information, full details of these changes to the regulations governing experimental procedures in the behavioural and social sciences can be found at http://bit.ly/HeZGp7.