Laura Louise Nicklin is a second year PhD student studying in the Department of Education at The University of York. Her research is concerned with the use of Shakespeare and the arts as an alternative for the rehabilitation of young offenders, with data collection taking place in prisons. Due to the sensitive nature of her research, Laura experienced a number of barriers to seeking ethical approval. In her post, she reflects on this experience and offers her top ten tips for a smooth application.

All research undertaken requires ethical consideration, and all research students need ethical approval from their institution. Without approval you cannot collect data, and this can cause delays of weeks or even months if you do not get started as soon as possible.
All education research students must have their ethical audit form approved by their supervisor. If there is any uncertainty, you will also need TAP member approval. Consideration by the full Education Ethics Committee is required if the research proposed involves deception, an intervention or if the topic is sensitive or distressing. The committee may respond with full approval however it is likely clarification or amendments may be requested.
This blog offers my top ten tips for full ethical approval that from my own experience I believe will not only help you to complete the process quicker but also help you think in greater detail about your own research. Though it is a difficult and at times frustrating journey, I can honestly say from recent personal experience that on the whole it has made my research design much stronger.

1. Get approval early

Get approved as soon as possible. Do not wait until you are ready to collect. If you have a research plan, get approved. You cannot start data collection until you hold ethical approval and this cannot happen overnight, especially where full approval is required. Speaking from experience these amendments can range between minor and major changes, and further amendments may be requested multiple times before approval. This can be a time consuming process and with every set of revisions research is further delayed.

2. Be clear

Clarity and detail are essential to a good ethical application. If you are clear and detailed in the first instance, it will be easier to assess your study, and will help accelerate approval. Read your application and ask yourself, “why?” Just as when you are writing an essay it is very important that any other individual can comprehend what you have written. Try to identify potential questions and ensure that you answer them.

3. Include relevant documents

Make sure that consent forms and any documents detailed in ethical applications are included and are high quality. They are vital and therefore subject to the same scrutiny as the application. Consider target audiences and use examples which are available from specific departments. Check formatting, grammar, punctuation and clarity to prevent avoidable errors requiring change.

4. Test and check

Research instruments have a target audience. Consent forms aimed at children, must be understood by children. Just as you do for academic writing, adjust your tone and vocabulary selection making it audience appropriate. I advise testing this. Ask other individuals who fit the description of your participants or a sample group for feedback so that you can ensure your participants fully understand.

5. Proofread

You absolutely must proofread everything, appendices included. Something simple like misplaced punctuation can cause avoidable revision requests and further delays. Be absolutely certain that what you write is what you mean and do not rely on spellcheck alone as it may miss where punctuation disrupts your meaning. Also, make sure you refer to institutions appropriately. For example, there are several universities with the word “York” in their name yet people often say “York University”. The correct institution in my case is “The University of York, UK.” Though seemingly trivial, this causes ethical problems if an individual does wish to contact the host organisation.

6. Answer every revision

Politely respond to every revision requested, from simple to more complex. There are two ways I advise:

a) Amend

If an issue has been brought to your attention, you should make the changes and demonstrate this in your response to your ethics committee. Changes like this will help you clarify your own work. Be sure to state that this change has been made in your response to ethical revisions, and also attach evidence.

b) Justify

It may be that the reviewer has misunderstood your meaning, or needs signposting to where you have already done what they ask. If you absolutely believe this to be the case then you can politely direct them to this, and also reiterate it in a different way for clarity. If the reviewer is unsure you probably do need to clarify meaning for anyone who may later read your thesis.

7. Be Honest

Simply do not lie. The purpose of the ethical approval procedure is to ensure all bodies involved are protected, therefore you need to be completely truthful about your work. Within this clearly justify any ethical decision that is sensitive or potentially controversial.

8. Explain

In line with honesty, something in your research may not fit standard procedures. Where an ethical requirement cannot be met, you must explain this decision. For example, my research cannot allow a standard right to withdraw as all data I collect will be anonymised at collection. This makes later identification for withdrawal impossible, however after any contribution is collected, before it is filed with other unmarked data, I remind participants of this, giving them as much opportunity as possible.

9. Ask

If you need guidance then ask. Your supervisor is a good starting point for this but you are also allowed to contact relevant bodies for guidance if there is something you are unsure of. Utilise your student community if you are facing a problem or you are unsure, as the chances are that somebody else has faced it in the past.

10. Don’t break your heart

Seeking ethical approval can feel disappointing and like an uphill struggle at times. However disappointing multiple sets of revisions might feel when arriving in your inbox, you must remember that this will improve your research. Ethical research procedures are by no means an exercise in holding you back. Use this help you create an ethically robust research study and for writing your ethics section of your thesis with detailed consideration.

This is by no means a comprehensive guarantee for approval, but I hope it is of use as a starting point. If you have further advice to offer please do share in the comments.
Good luck and if you have any questions please ask on lln500@york.ac.uk.

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