I often wonder which of the papers we publish in JAN attract the attention of lots of readers and which others are skipped over by most and read only by those with a very direct interest in the topic. It is my suspicion - although I might well be wrong - that, in this issue of JAN, many readers will skip through (or past) Howarth et al.’s paper (pp. 363–372) on ‘centralization and research governance’.
Even readers who are researchers, all of whom ought to be interested in the matter of research governance, may not engage with this paper on account of the rather specific purpose and context of the study it reports (i.e. an evaluation of a research governance model in primary care organizations in one part of England) and/or on account of the relatively small sample size and disappointingly low response rate (30%/n = 74) in the questionnaire survey.
However, when read as a whole, Howarth et al.’s paper provides a valuable reminder of the principles and domains of research governance. It challenges us all to think about the complexities of ensuring that all healthcare research is ethically and scientifically sound and, at the same time, gives value for money. Yes, as Howarth et al. state (p. 3), ‘many researchers ... have become frustrated by the complex array of procedures’ that have been introduced in the name of research governance. Only 30% of their study participants saw the governance processes as being useful or very useful, and nearly 50% thought they were a hindrance or not useful. Some tangible benefits of a centralized approach to managing research governance were recognized, however, and Howarth et al. conclude that their study supports the continued use and development of the system that their research set out to evaluate.
It is certainly the clear expectation of the UK government that, throughout this country, there will be continuing adherence to, and development of, the research governance framework that was introduced in 2001 (Department of Health 2001). And, in other countries too, as Howarth et al. tell us in the informative introduction to their paper, there has been a similar move in recent years towards the adoption of more centralized and more elaborate research governance systems. Yet other countries, according to Howarth et al. (p. 2), recognize the need for a national approach to regulating research, but have yet to achieve this. They mention Australia as one such country and cite Poustie et al.’s (2006) contention that this is problematical because, although ‘research misconduct or fraud are rare, actual breaches in research integrity are becoming increasingly common’ (p. 2).
It is worth remembering, when bemoaning the bureaucracy that has grown up around research governance, that the instigation of centralized standards and systems was prompted in the first place by instances of research misconduct. This point is made at the start of Howarth et al.’s paper and, rightly, they draw attention to the ‘growing recognition that research activity needs to be both supported and monitored, not least to maintain public trust and participation in clinical research in particular’.