Exercise 2: Evaluating applications for ethical review

Sometimes students and researchers think of the process of seeking formal ethical review for their research as a tiresome bureaucratic exercise. However, it is a vitally important legal responsibility for universities and other organizations that undertake research. It also enables them to check that their duty of care towards students, researchers and those who participate in their research will be properly implemented. 

To get a sense of the work undertaken by members of Research Ethics Committees and to practise applying ethical principles to real-life projects, here are two applications for ethical review that were prepared by groups of students who were working together on projects for their dissertations. (The applications are presented here with permission. All identifying materials have been removed.)

Often universities and other research organizations will require students and researchers to complete an application form when seeking ethical review. On that form, applicants need to specify some key features of their proposed research that are particularly pertinent to ethical practice. (Increasingly, universities and research organizations are creating or adapting online systems for the submission of applications for ethical review.) You can see an edited version of such a form in the application for ethical review of the study of young adults’ motivations for and experiences of skin lightening. That basic overview of the proposed research usually needs to be accompanied by a formal research proposal and draft copies of all the research materials that the applicant proposes to use. Both applications above contain formal research proposals and drafts of research materials.

Read one or both of them and evaluate them in terms of their ethical ‘soundness’ using the same resources suggested in Exercise 1 (the four basic principles specified in the British Psychological Society’s (2014) Code of Human Research Ethics; the section in Chapter 3 entitled ‘Ethical considerations for fieldwork in qualitative research’; and Table 3.1 in that chapter which identifies a range of ethical issues and how they can be addressed).

  • Is there any further information that you need the applicants to provide so that you can reach firm conclusions about the ethical implications of the proposed studies?
  • What recommendations, if any, would you offer to help the applicants ensure that their proposed research incorporates ethical principles and addresses ethical issues as fully as possible? You may want to suggest changes to aspects of their proposed research practice and/or their research materials.
  • How would your recommendations enhance the ethical nature of the proposed research?

Templates for research materials

The application for ethical review concerning ‘Pentecostal Christians’ representations of and responses to people with mental health conditions’ contains useful templates for a Participant Information Sheet and a Consent Form. You may wish to adapt these for use in your own research.