What is best practice?
It’s a term that we hear a lot, and probably say even more, but what does ‘best practice’ actually mean? Is it something that can actually be achieved or is it aspirational? How does the idea of best practice fit into the research context, which is in part designed to develop new best practices all the time?
The challenge really comes in the form of codes of conduct or practice that seek to regulate human and animal research, and guide research integrity. Best practice is phrase used often, but rarely defined. The latest version of the Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes does however provide a sensible definition for the context. Simply, it says that current best practice is a process, procedure or method “that has been shown to be most effective in supporting and safeguarding animal wellbeing” and that is based on scientific evidence, the types of animals used, and includes strategies for minimising adverse impacts. None can argue that in the context of animal research, best practice as defined should not be our aim.
Fortunately, the new Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes recognises that best practice isn’t always possible or even desirable. It recognises this by allowing processes or procedures that are considered to be less than best practice to proceed provided that the use of a less than best practice procedure is justified. Just because something is less than best practice doesn't mean that it is therefore worst practice or even necessarily bad practice. It is possible to imagine that a good practice should be allowed to continue to be used, even in the presence of a new best practice, if it means that previous research data is still relevant. This is based on the one of the “Three Rs” of animal ethics, reduction. If the gap between the old and the new is small, then perhaps the new best practice isn’t something that needs to be immediately adopted.
This should not be read as an argument against the idea of best practice, but a reflection on the practicalities of achieving it. Best practice, especially in animal research, should be our goal, but we have to acknowledge that we may never get there. Best practice is rightfully a forever-moving target.
The University of Melbourne is a large and diverse organisation. Capturing best practice is a challenge, especially as more research reveals new ways of achieving it. Who determines what best practice is? How can it be described? Context or application is an important consideration here. A best practice procedure for one research project may be very different to best practice for the same procedure in another research project. Researchers have a large role to play in determining best practice. As the people who understand the context perhaps better than anyone, their advice and consideration is key. Animal welfare officers and laboratory animal scientists, who specialise in ensuring the welfare of animals and the design of ethical research procedures, are also an important part of the picture. Committees too are involved, but maybe their role is to provide advice on the ethics of a new best practice rather than in its conception or design.
The goal of capturing best practice is a worthy one and there are things that we can do help make sure that current best practice is captured and shared. We have to think carefully though about the way we use the term. Sometimes just good practice is enough.