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Christopher Douce

Ethics support for projects: Which studies need review, by whom and why?

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On 15 June 2023, I went to another academic professional event. This one was all about ethics and ethical approval. In some respects, it directly follows on from the previous blog, which was all about how to write a 4* research paper.

The session was facilitated by Alison Fox, Chair of Human Research Ethics Committee, and Bart Gamber who is a Student Research Manager for the student research project panel (SRPP). Alison is based in ECYS, the school of Education Childhood Youth and Sport.

The aim of the session was to present an overview of ethics mechanisms for researchers who make use of human participants, and to share something about who, how and why things work. Another aim was to share something about the types of studies that may require ethical approval.

Introducing HREC

HREC is an abbreviation for the Human Research Ethics Committee. We were shown something called the Research Ethics Landing Page, which offered a whole set of links which relate to the different parts of the university which support both ethics and research. An important element of this was a flowchart which highlights what needs ethical review.

Different types of research were mentioned: evaluation research (of services, procedures and policies).; audit research; market research; research. Each of these might necessitate ethical consideration. If OU students are involved with any type of study, this necessitates a referral to the SRPP team. Also, if a study involves more than more than 30 members of staff, researchers must consult the Staff Survey Project Panel (SSPP).

An important point was made about the use of data. Audio recordings that are collected during a study is considered to be personal data, which means that it must be manged carefully. This leads us to consider the different places of support that we may need to draw upon. 

The teams we might consult, include:

  • Data projection team; to gain advice about how to record information assets.
  • Information security team; if wanted to use particular platforms.
  • Library research support team; to consult about how data is stored, how it can be retrieved.

A tip: apply to each of these in parallel.

Two ways to apply to HREC were highlighted. The first was a checklist, which is submitted to the committee. This has a 7 day turnaround time. If your project is a high risk application, a full HREC application can be submitted, then there is a longer 3 week turnaround since it is submitted to two reviewers.

Introducing SRPP

Next up was a summary of the SRPP, which is an abbreviation of the Student Research Project Panel. SRPP is the mechanism used by researchers to gather names and identifies of students you might wish to invite as participants to different kinds of studies. SRPP is important. It is a gatekeeper; you have to go through it to access any of the OU’s students. The reason why it exists is simple: it presents the same students from being approached time and time again. It’s function is pretty simple too: you give it a criteria, and it gives you back identities of those you are allowed to contact.

We were introduced to the SRPP internal website, and shown an online application form. This form contains section where you describe the methodology of your study, a description of the sample of students you wish to involve, a confirmation that you have engaged with HREC, and have taken into account information security, and data protection. 

As the site SRPP site develops, there is the intention of providing examples of previous submissions.

Tip tips

Towards the end of the session, we were given a number of top tips. What follows is an abridged (and edited) version:

  • Start early and expect a dialogue with the teams, and build this into any timescales and plans.
  • Contact teams before submitting applications to get advice.
  • If collecting personal information, you need an asset register.
  • Consider everything from a participants’ perspective; think about their concerns.
  • Consider what data is being collected, how it will be held, destroyed and how consent might be withdrawn.

If you are getting started with a design, visit the research journey landing page for help and guidance.

Undergraduate and postgraduate projects

During this session, then following important point was made: everything described earlier relates to research that is carried out either by doctoral students, or academic staff. 

Students who are carrying out projects that are a part of taught undergraduate and postgraduate qualifications do not need to make HREC submissions or interact with any of the organisational units that were mentioned earlier. This is all to do with insurance.

Students who are completing undergraduate projects, or are writing dissertations that may necessitate carrying out a small study must follow the ethical guidance that is presented within the modules that they are studying. 

Reflections

It’s been a while since I’ve been to a session about research ethics. It is interesting to see how things have developed. Notably, there is a lot more emphasis on securing and holding of data. This is, of course, a very welcome development. The advice “make sure you speak with each unit” early on in the research journey is good sound advice.

One the topic of a theoretical research journal, we were also introduced to a resource that was called “Research Journey”. This resource, a web page, was all about educational research with students, which is where SRPP comes in.

An interesting point that I have noted was: most scholarship projects won’t need to go down the road of HREC, but some academic publishers do require evidence of engagement with ethics panels before research is published. As a reviewer, I certainly look to see the extent to which ethics is mentioned within the articles that are submitted.

The themes and issues that have been mentioned have wider relevance. It was mentioned that both undergraduate and postgraduate students don’t need to submit anything to HREC. Being a tutor on an undergraduate module, where students are asked to consider ethics from a number of different perspectives has made me reflect that perhaps I ought to be sharing a bit more about the kinds of ethical issues they should consider. I feel another blog about TM470 might be needed.

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