Research Ethics: Ethical review – an overview

Firstly, many thanks to Becky Case, Debbie Knight and Diane Hopkins for the interesting and informative Research Bites session on the Ethics approval process at Lancaster University.

Secondly, apologies to anyone who had hoped to stream in or watch a recording. Research Bites in March and April will not be recorded/streamed. The LU Ethics Team have kindly shared the slides from this session.

Lancaster University Ethics Committees

There are now three Faculty-focused Ethics Committees which deal with the majority of Ethics applications, and report to the University Research Ethics Committee (UREC). Some applications are referred to UREC, but most are dealt with at these committees.

The webpages are full of useful information about the process, including supporting documentation and contact details.

Ethics approval process

Depending on the complexity of the ethical considerations, applications can be turned around in a couple of weeks, e.g. when there has been prior approval, a month or two e.g. if the full committee needs to decide, or even go on for much longer.

Delays can happen when:

  • the researcher doesn’t supply enough information
  • the researcher doesn’t start the process early enough, or at all, or
  • the approval needs to be referred to other committees which only meet at certain times

The overwhelming message was to consider first whether ethical approval is needed at all, and second, get in touch with the Research Ethics Officers early on.

Ethical mindset

The presentation and discussion recognised that while Research Ethics approval can be – and unfortunately, sometimes is – seen as a series of hoops to jump through before cracking on with the research, it is in fact an integral part of the research design process. In developing the ethics approval application, the researcher is considering:

  • recruitment of participants
  • informed consent from participants
  • research methodology
  • potential risk to the researcher and/or participants
  • policies from the University, funder and even publishers

Questions

There were many interested questions asked during the session, though the majority of answers seemed to be that each case is different. Something that seems simple om the surface can reveal itself to be quite ‘high risk’. However, while alarm bells may ring, that is by no means a reason that the research cannot take place. Rather the researcher will need to consider how, for example, participants could be made aware of the sensitivity nature of the study, or an appropriate way to understand the research and give/refuse consent.

  • How long is approval likely to take?
  • Is there such a thing as retrospective ethics approval?
  • Can one application cope with different ethical risks/considerations, e.g. human participants and lone working? (Yes)
  • Are any groups e.g. children or disabled people considered ‘vulnerable’?
  • Should I apply for ethics before contacting prospective participants, e.g. a teaser for recruitment, or scoping out organisations to work with?

If you have similar questions, please get in touch with the Research Ethics Officers.

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