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Ethical Approval for Research Projects: A How-To Guide

Ethics committee by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0

By Dr Lorraine Grimes

Archiving Reproductive Health (ARH) is delighted to announce that the ‘In Her Shoes’ collection has received ethical approval from Maynooth University. (Approval number: 2475462)

We understand that Ethics applications may seem daunting, so we have put together some tips and what to expect from the process to help you along the way. 

In Ireland, ethics approval is sought through universities. University Ethical Boards are comprised of academics from various disciplines who volunteer their time to review applications. You must make an application with the university your research is affiliated with.  

The ethics application is designed to help you think about your project, what are the potential risks involved with carrying out the research? Could any participants be harmed in the process? This includes psychological harm or possible re-traumatisation (if you plan to discuss a sensitive topic). 

Each project will have different levels of risk involved. The point of the application is to mitigate these risks or try to limit them as much as possible. The benefits of the overall research should outweigh any potential risks. 

Some tips for the application process 

Write the application in simple language. The person reviewing is most likely not an expert in your field. Try to keep answers short, precise and to the point. 

You will be expected to have a copy of the consent form and information sheet for the project. If you are carrying out interviews you will need a copy of the interview guide or questions for the participants. If you are carrying out a survey, a copy of the questions should be included. 

Try and think about the project as if you were the participant. Why would I get involved? What are the benefits to me? What are the risks to me? How can you as the researcher try to avoid these risks? 

Think about data sharing. How will the data be shared? In presentations, publications? Will the data be archived or destroyed after the project? 

Some ethics applications may be written with a scientific project in mind therefore, there may be questions which are not applicable to your project. In the case of ARH’s submission, we were seeking approval for archiving a Facebook dataset. This is not what the application was originally designed for but ethics is needed for all kinds of projects.  If questions in the application are not applicable, state that that is the case and why.

Allow time. It takes time to fill in the application but remember that the Ethics Committees only sit a number of times a year. Make sure to check the committee meeting dates. Applications usually have to be submitted one week before the committee sits. You will need to check this with your university. 

After you submit your application you will usually hear from the committee within 2-4 weeks. Expect to receive follow-up questions. It is unusual that projects are passed the first time without any questions from the committee. Questions from the committee are just to seek further clarification on the project. They may also suggest some changes to the application. 

When you re-submit the changes and answers to the committee, they check that you have addressed all of the questions and are satisfied with the answers. They will also check that you have made the suggested changes to the application (if any). Once the committee is satisfied, it will not take long before approval is officially granted. 

Good luck!

Image caption: Ethics committee by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0