Ethics

The BPS Ethics procedures – fit for purpose?

A reaction to Ashley Conway’s post from Peter Harvey:

It is an understatement to say that Hans Eysenck was no stranger to controversy. However, two papers published in 2019 highlighted serious concerns about possible ethical issues  – specifically relating to his work with Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. In his editorial, David Marks includes an open letter to the CEO requesting that the BPS conducts “…a thorough investigation of the facts together with retraction or correction of 61 papers.”. His plea was based on a well-referenced and highly detailed paper published in that same journal by Anthony Pelosi who concluded:

There is a complicated and multi-layered scandal surrounding Hans Eysenck’s work on fatal diseases. In my opinion, it is one of the worst scandals in the history of science, not least because the Heidelberg results have sat in the peer-reviewed literature for nearly three decades while dreadful and detailed allegations have remained uninvestigated. In the meantime, these widely cited studies have had direct and indirect influences on some people’s smoking and lifestyle choices. This means that for an unknown and unknowable number of individual men and women, this programme of research has been a contributory factor in premature illness and death. How can members of the public and their policymakers turn to science for help with difficult decisions when even this most extreme of scientific disputes cannot be resolved?

In a letter to The Psychologist (September 2019), Colman, Marks, McVittie & Smith noted that the BPS is “…uniquely placed to conduct a formal investigation and audit, and we call on them to act as soon as possible.”.

In an anonymous response (i.e. headed ‘Society reply’), after one paragraph describing the Society’s purpose (hopefully already known to its members) and another quoting from the Code of Ethics and Conduct, the third paragraph states:

However, the conduct of research lies with the academic institution which oversees the work carried out by its academics and we welcomed the investigation into this research carried out by King’s College, London.

In May 2019, Kings College reported on its internal enquiry into publications authored by Professor Hans Eysenck with Professor Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. Apart from the laudable speed  and thoroughness with which this was both commissioned and made available in the public domain, its conclusions are of considerable significance:

The Committee shared the concerns made by the critics of this body of work. We have come to the conclusion that we consider the published results of studies that included the results of the analyses of data collected as part of the intervention or observational studies to be unsafe and that the editors of the journals should be informed of our decision. We have highlighted 26 papers (Appendix 1) which were published in 11 journals which are still in existence (see list of journals and editors Appendix 2). We recommend that the Principal write to the editors of these journals to inform them that, based on our enquiry, we consider the results and conclusions of these studies are unsafe.

The Director of Research Governance, Ethics and Integrity at King’s has written to the academic lead for research misconduct at the University of Heidelberg to confirm Professor Ronald Grossarth-Maticek’s affiliation with them at the time in question, and to clarify their procedure for investigating allegations of research misconduct.

So whilst the BPS welcomed the Kings investigation, its serious conclusions and actions seem to have gone unremarked. In a much more detailed analysis of the history of this scandal and the BPS’s lack of action Craig et al., (2020) state, quite unequivocally:

The Eysenck case is a stain on the record of psychology and on science itself.

So what has the BPS done? As far as I can ascertain – absolutely nothing. I have searched the 2019/2020 archive of The Psychologist and there is no record of any statement by the BPS (I am happy to be pointed in the right direction should I have missed it). I am trying to contact the Chair of the BPS Ethics Committee – a task made harder as their name and contact details are absent from the BPS website (I will post as soon as I get a response). However, in attempting to find out about about the complaints procedure I came across the following statement:

In order for the Society to be able to take any action you must provide the evidence required, as outlined in the procedures of the Member Conduct Rules. The Society will then decide if the member has breached the rules, and decide on the appropriate action. The Society does not have a function to investigate complaints against its members, but can take action when the Society has evidence of the outcomes from any appropriate third party investigation.

I was shocked to read that the Society does not have an investigatory function. It is the one body that has access to the expertise necessary to evaluate the validity of an ethical breach. In my opinion it is a serious dereliction of duty to outsource the investigatory process. In this case, that has been done and the review raises serious questions about the integrity of widely-cited research by a very senior psychologist. So why hasn’t the BPS, quickly and authoritatively, responded? Where is the acknowledgement of the Kings Report (initially ‘welcomed’ by the BPS). They have done their duty – why not the BPS? Surely the BPS shouldn’t shirk its responsibilities in this way.

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