Research Ethics Committees

‘Research ethics committees have an important role in balancing the risks and benefits of proposed research projects, and it can be helpful for researchers to understand the main issues that research ethics committees will consider during their deliberations. Research ethics committees will focus on: the potential risks to research participants; the potential risks to researchers; the requirement for freely given informed consent; and the potential of the study to generate findings of value.’

Gelling (2016) Applying for ethical approval for research: the main issues. Nursing Standard 30(20)

Declaration of Helsinki 1975

  • Concern about research involving human subjects at an international level led the World Medical Association to develop guidelines, enshrined in the 1975 ‘Declaration of Helsinki’


  • Medical research is subject to ethical standards that promote and ensure respect for all human subjects and protect their health and rights

  • While the primary purpose of medical research is to generate new knowledge, this goal can never take precedence over the rights and interests of individual research subjects

  • The ethical principle governing research is that respondents should not be harmed as a result of participating in the research

Declaration of Helskini – research ethics committees

  • The research protocol must be submitted for consideration,comment, guidance and approval to the concerned research ethics committee before the study begins. This committee must be transparent in its functioning, must be independent of the researcher, the sponsor and any other undue influence and must be duly qualified. It must take into consideration the laws and regulations of the country or countries in which the research is to be performed as well as applicable international norms and standards but these must not be allowed to reduce or eliminate any of the protections for research subjects set forth in this Declaration.

  • The committee must have the right to monitor ongoing studies. The researcher must provide monitoring information to the committee, especially information about any serious adverse events. No amendment to the protocol may be made without consideration and approval by the committee.

ESRC’s framework for research

  • Research should aim to maximise benefit for individuals and society and minimise risk and harm

  • The rights and dignity of individuals and groups should be respected

  • Wherever possible, participation should be voluntary and appropriately informed

  • Research should be conducted with integrity and transparency

  • Lines of responsibility and accountability should be clearly defined

  • Independence of research should be maintained and where conflicts of interest cannot be avoided they should be made explicit.

  • Aim to raise awareness of some of the ethics issues that can arise in research

Ethical considerations in your research design

Quantitative methods

  • Data analysed in the form of numbers

  • Experimental Vs Non-experimental research

  • Experimental – protecting individuals that receive an intervention

    • Fully inform participant about nature of activity, clarification that consent can be withdrawn and may stop activity at any time

  • Non-experimental – e.g. surveys
    • Less complex – full disclosure and consent
    • Participants should be aware of purpose of study, who is taking part, confidentiality, how results will be used, who will have access to the data
    • Not wasting participants’ time – only collecting data that is needed

Ethical issues in quantitative research

Drew C, Hardman ML, Hosp JL (2008) Design and conducting research in education. Sage Publications

Qualitative methods

  • Narrative descriptions: to observe and describe conditions rather than control them

  • Participant and non-participant observations

    • Informed consent, threat to privacy, revelation of observed conversations/behaviours, individuals who are not being studied but still could be observed
    • Non-participant consent – in an approved setting or a public, generally observable place
    • Undercover research/immersive research – e.g. ethnography – see sheet.

Ethical issues in qualitative research

Drew C, Hardman ML, Hosp JL (2008) Design and conducting research in education. Sage Publications

Ethical issues in interviewing

Respect for the rights and welfare of all the various social groups being interviewed for the study must be demonstrated through the conduct of the research, including its dissemination

Potential harm:

  • Undue intrusion into private and personal spheres, embarrassment, distress, nervous strain, a sense of failure or coercion
  • Costs of time spent; travelling to the interview; or time taken off work
  • Arising from the work being published, attracting the attention of the media etc.

Participant information for qualitative interviews

  • The purpose and nature of the study, including the research methods and timing

  • The anticipated benefits, risks or costs (for those taking part in the study, and also the wider society) Contact details of the researcher, and the research base

  • The names of the funders or sponsors

  • The sorts of questions being asked and how long the interview should take

  • Their right not to answer specific questions, or to change their mind and withdraw from the research altogether

  • The degree of anonymity and confidentiality: what information will be disclosed, for what purposes and to whom; the use of quotations

  • Arrangements to safeguard confidentiality

  • Plans regarding dissemination. Graduate students undertaking research ought to let informants know that the resulting dissertation is a public document which can be obtained from libraries. If the eventual aim is to produce a book version of the thesis, this should be stated (Arksey & Knight, 1999, p129-130)

Confidentiality & anonymity when interviewing

In interviewing, promises of confidentiality and anonymity can influence:

  • Whether or not someone will actually take part
  • How ‘frank’ the responses will be


  • Some people would rather be named and acknowledged, wanting to see their ‘names in print’! Especially people already in the public eye
  • Is a breach of confidence ever justified? E.g. if you are told stories about child abuse, illegal activities or thoughts of suicide? There is no definitive answer, except to say that you need to give careful consideration to all the factors and if you then come to the conclusion that someone is at serious risk of harm, or that it is in the public interest if you share the information, then the case should be made that the principles of confidence no longer hold

In reporting qualitative interviews, it may not be enough to change names, you may also have to change gender, race, occupation etc., to protect people - Storage – tapes, transcripts etc., must be inaccessible to people other than the research team - Data protection & privacy legislation – data protection laws are in place in order to protect individuals’ privacy

Focus Groups