Protect yourself and the subjects

August 11, 2006

Ethical considerations may not be at the top of your priorities when developing a research proposal. But, advises Harriet Swain, your pet project could have an unforeseen impact on some participants.

You've just dashed off an application form to the university's ethics committee and told them to relax. No issues to worry about and consent's certainly sorted. Those schoolgirls you use in your studies are always dead impressed by the idea that you're a prof.

The committee may be less so. "One thing to avoid is saying there are no ethical issues - 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 an ethics committee will find to think about," he says. "It is a matter of the researcher identifying those issues."

While you're right about consent being crucial, you need to think about it much more carefully. "Whether participants are being given appropriate information to make a properly informed decision is one of the main issues ethics committees are worried about," Sheehan says.

Jason Halford, chair of the School of Psychology Research Ethics Committee at Liverpool University, warns that participants may sometimes be tempted to go along with what you want 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 may turn out to include vulnerable people, such as children or those with mental health issues. If so, what risks to them could be involved and what will you do to alleviate these? Will you, or any other researcher, need a criminal records check?

Halford says he would always advise people to consult 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 trying to disengage yourself from the research. Think about whether you would allow a family member to take part in your proposed trial and what other information you would need before making up your mind.

"Researchers need to forget about how their research is going to change the world and focus more closely on the worries participants will have," he says.

On the other hand, you will also need to explain why you think your study does have a point. "Being able to explain why you would like to do this is important," he says.

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 and may need it spelt out. "In any proposal you are trying to get through, you do have to be very sympathetic to the idea that not everyone on the panel is going to be from your field,"

he says.

It is therefore a good idea to lose the jargon. Halford says that someone who is educated but not necessarily a specialist in your area should be able to understand what you have written on the form.

The other main issue you need to be aware of when submitting an application to an ethics committee is confidentiality, Sheehan says. "People tend to worry a lot about what sorts of restrictions are in place to make sure data and 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. She once had a form returned because there was no version number on a questionnaire she submitted. Researching in advance exactly what is needed can save time later, she says.

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, he says.

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

He advocates training for all staff submitting applications to ethics committees, but "not in how to fill a form in". Rather, he says, "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 and what's wanted".

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 so that they understand the underlying principles. You also need to be familiar with the code of ethics governing your particular discipline laid down by your professional body. Your application must also 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. By then, you may feel your schoolgirls are too old.

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


  • Be aware of all relevant ethics legislation and guidelines
  • Make sure you have thoroughly addressed issues of consent and confidentiality
  • Enclose supporting material
  • Lose the jargon
  • Make sure you understand the ethical questions.

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