Applying for ethics approval

Who are you writing for?

As with any piece of writing, think about your audience.  For the purpose of research ethics review, there are three key points to consider:

  • the committee members’ motivation and interests
  • the committee’s expertise; and
  • the perspective of lay members.

Committee members motivation and interests

By definition, research ethics committees take research ethics very seriously.  After all, this is their business, and to a greater or lesser extent they are staffed by people who have an active interest in research ethics.  The people reading your application are likely to have had specific training on ethics review, and to have spent a lot of time thinking about, and discussing, research ethics.

Remember too that committee members often work in a voluntary capacity, or accommodate committee work within their existing (often substantial) workloads, usually because they are motivated by the belief that what they are doing is worthwhile.  They do not see research ethics review as waste of time or a bureaucratic hurdle.  To get them on your side, you need to convey that you also take research ethics seriously.  If an application seems cursory, or hastily prepared, they may scrutinise it more harshly than one that is evidently thoughtful and thorough.

The perspective of lay members

Most ethics committees now include lay members - people who are not academics or researchers.  For that reason, most committees require that you write in language that is accessible to a lay audience.  This is one of the reasons that you should not simply paste information into the ethics application from your research proposal.

Writing in inaccessible or overly technical language may disadvantage you.  If a lay reader finds your application hard to understand, they may have concerns about how well you will communicate information about your research to potential participants.  Equally, writing clearly and accessibly will reassure them that you have thought about how to communicate well with your potential sample.   

What is the committee’s expertise?

When writing your application, consider whether the committee is likely to have the methodological expertise to understand fully the ethics considerations in your research.  This consideration is particularly important if your research is likely to be outside the ‘norm’ of what your particular committee usually reviews.  You may not be able to do anything about their expertise - or lack of it - but you can make sure you take account of it in writing your application.  For example, imagine two studies being submitted to an NHS Research Ethics Committee:

One involves an experimental trial of a standardised intervention model - a design that is likely to be fairly familiar to an NHS Research Ethics Committee member, and which can use protocols (such as information sheets and consent forms) that will also be familiar.  Depending on the nature of the intervention, the study may still raise ethics concerns among committee members, but in terms of the design, they are likely to have a good understanding of what the researcher is planning to do. 

By contrast, the second study proposes to use ethnographic observation in a study of stress and health behaviour among nurses.  The researcher may be highly skilled and experienced, but the committee may have concerns about the apparent lack of the usual safeguards - such as information sheets and consent forms.  This study will challenge committe members’ expertise, which means they are likely to have more uncertainty about approving it.

Think carefully about the committee members’ expertise in planning what - and how much - information you need to include.  Is your design unusual, or likely to be unfamiliar to the committee?  Are you not using the protocols they are accustomed to seeing?  If so, you should provide a particularly thorough and careful explanation, to reassure the committee and help them to understand:

  • the necessity of your methodological approach; and
  • the ethics issues raised, and how they will be addressed.