Assessing Risk to Researchers: Using the Case of Sexuality Research to Inform Research Ethics Board Guidelines

Valerie Webber, Fern Brunger


Research Ethics Boards (REBs) typically focus on ensuring the safety of participants. Increasingly, the risk that research poses to researchers is also discussed. Should REBs involve themselves in determining the degree of allowable researcher risk, and if so, upon what should they base that assessment? The evaluation of researcher safety does not appear to be standardized in any national REB protocols. The implications of REB review of researcher risks remain undertheorized. With a critical queer framework, we use the example of sexuality research to illustrate problems that could arise if researcher risk is assessed. We concentrate on two core research ethics guidelines: 1. How research risk compares to the risks of everyday life. 2. How potential harms compare to the anticipated research benefits. Some argue that sexuality research is more deeply scrutinized than research in other fields, viewed as inherently risky for both participants and researchers. The example of sexuality research helps make explicit the moral undertones of procedural ethics. With these moral undertones in mind, we argue that if adopted, researcher risk guidelines should be the purview of pedagogical relationships or workplace safety requirements, not REBs. Any risk training should be universally required regardless of the research area.


IRB; research ethics committees; risk; researcher risk; sexuality studies; sex exceptionalism

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Copyright (c) 2018 Valerie Webber

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