Applying for ethics approval

Iterative research designs

Including documentation can be problematic if your research has an iterative design, for example, where you are using pilot work to develop your research instruments.  In that example, you need ethics approval in order to do your pilot work, but until you have done the pilot work, you have not got the documentation that the ethics committee wants to see.

The ESRC Framework for Research Ethics (2010) recognises that research may use iterative designs, and states that Research Ethics Committees should have mechanisms that make provision for future advice and guidance beyond the initial ethics approval process - including referral back to the committee where appropriate.

In practice, this may mean that you have to get ethics approval in stages.  For example, the ethics committee could approve your initial work, and any aspects of the research (e.g. sampling techniques) that you do not expect to change.  Later on, you would submit for approval any research materials or changes developed as a result of your iterative work, and approval for those new elements of the work would be given at that stage.

In a sense, this process applies to all research - as we have said elsewhere (see our section on ethics questions arising during fieldwork).  You can never anticipate everything that could arise during a study, and you always have to go back to the ethics committee (and if need be, to your funder) if you need to make a significant change to the research design that has been approved by the ethics committee.

Research ethics committee procedures vary, and so if you are planning research with an iterative design, it is a good idea to check with the secretary/coordinator or chair of the particular committee to which you will make your application.  You could ask them whether they have reviewed iterative designs before, and what sort of information you ought to include to make sure that the committee understands the nature of your approach.