Ethical issues in research

Avoid delays to your research project by providing your institution’s ethics committee with enough information to properly assess your undertaking

July 14, 2008

“Avoid telling an ethics committee that there are no ethical issues in your work - that really gets their backs up,” says Mark Sheehan, research fellow in a programme on the ethics of the new biosciences at Oxford University.

“There is always something they will find to think about,” he says. “It is a matter of the researcher identifying those issues.”

“Whether participants in research are being given appropriate information to make a properly informed decision is one of the main issues ethics committees are worried about,” Sheehan notes.

Jason Halford, chair of the School of Psychology Research Ethics Committee at Liverpool University, warns that participants may sometimes go along with you because you are a figure of authority. You must ensure that they are genuinely happy to be involved in your research and that you have protected their rights.

He says you will need to justify to an ethics committee why you are using a particular subset of people and to consider whether that group includes vulnerable people, such as children or those with mental health issues. If so, what risks could be involved? Will you, or any other researcher, need a criminal records check?

Halford says he would always advise consulting colleagues before submitting an ethics application, especially when using posters to recruit people for a study. “Some people find phrases offensive that you might not even think about,” he says.

Sheehan advises you to think about whether you would allow a family member to take part in your proposed trial and what information you would need before making up your mind.

Nik Brown is deputy director of the Science and Technology Studies Unit in the department of sociology at York University and recently helped to draw up a framework for social science research ethics for the Economic and Social Research Council.

He says someone on an ethics committee with a background in quantitative research may not always understand the purpose of a qualitative research project. “You have to remember that not everyone on the panel is going to be from your field.”

The other main issue you need to be aware of is confidentiality, Sheehan says. “People worry about what sorts of restrictions are in place to make sure the information you are accumulating isn't going to go elsewhere.”

Halford warns that it is not enough to say you will ensure confidentiality. You have to demonstrate how.

Jackie Blissett, a senior lecturer in psychology at Birmingham University who uses videos of parent-child interactions in her research, says you need to think hard about how to keep data anonymous but accessible.

You also need to follow protocol to the letter when filling out forms, she advises.

The most common mistake on forms submitted to an ethics committee, according to Halford, is lack of detail. Many people also fail to answer precisely the questions they have been asked. If you don't understand a particular question, or it doesn't seem to apply to your field of research, it is up to you to ask what it means.

Another common mistake is failure to include supporting materials, such as questionnaires and recruitment posters.

He advocates training for all staff submitting applications. “Universities have to start promoting a culture of ethics so that when people come to fill in these forms and read instructions they understand the issues underpinning the form.”

He advises all academics involved in human research to find out as much as possible about their institution's ethics framework and to read the ESRC's framework.

You also need to be familiar with the code of ethics governing your particular discipline laid down by your professional body, and your application must comply with legislation and with international ethical principles, such as the Helsinki Declaration governing medical research.

Finally, plan ahead. Brown warns that getting something through an ethics committee can easily take more than 18 months, especially if revisions are needed.


• Economic and Social Research Council research ethics framework: (Enter search for "ethics framework".)

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