Ethics committee responses

Ethics committee responses

When we were developing this guidebook, we interviewed a number of experts in research ethics – from funding bodies, from the NHS NRES system, and from University ethics committees (see the acknowlegements section). All were clear that Ethics committee approval is not simply a ‘pass’ or ‘fail’. In the words of one, ethics review is a formative, not a summative assessment of your application. You may get a straightforward approval - and you can probably increase your chances of that happening if you spend time on your application (see our section on applying for ethics approval).

In practice, however, it is very common for committees to make some recommendations, or to set some requirements for things they want to be addressed before they will issue approval. This will often be described in the letter as the committee’s ‘decision’, but that does not mean you cannot respond.

A kind of peer review?

In thinking about ethics committee feedback, a useful parallel is the response you get following peer review when you submit an article to a journal – only rarely is an article accepted without any revisions; equally, it is unusual for a journal submission to be rejected outright, with no opportunity to respond. Ethics review is also a form of peer review, and just as you accept peer review comments as part of the process of getting your work published, so you can see ethics review feedback as part of the process of conducting your research.

Don’t panic, and don’t get angry

The letter from the ethics committee may start by saying ‘the committee has been unable to approve your application’ – and this inevitably feels alarming and frustrating, especially if you have spent a long time preparing your application. If your application has not been approved, or is approved subject to requirements, the letter should then go on to give reasons for that decision, and those reasons will include recommendations or requirements for things the ethics committee wants you to change.

A straight rejection is unlikely, and you should always be given reasons for the decision. In the rare cases that you are not, you should ask for an explanation to be provided.

But whether your have been given recommendations, or even if you think your application has been rejected outright, we’d suggest you follow these general steps:

  1. Do you understand the comments and questions?
  2. Responding to comments
  3. Appeals processes
  4. Consult with your funder (although you may want or need to do this before you make an appeal)