Successful implementation of the Framework for Research Ethics relies on individual research organisations (ROs) having the appropriate culture and structures in place that recognise the importance of engaging in ethical reflection on good research practice.
Encouraging a mindset towards a robust ethics culture and a provision of training plays a central role in this process. Such training should be ongoing and become an integral part of research practice.
We expect social scientists to engage with ethics issues from the start of their research careers. ROs should ensure that social science postgraduate training programmes in the doctoral centres address the range of issues in this framework.
The aim of ethics training should be to build confidence in individuals to recognise the need for ethics scrutiny of social science research throughout the research lifecycle of a project - including project planning, research activity, knowledge exchange and impact activities, the dissemination process and the further ethics consideration required for data archiving and future use of data, including data linkage and sharing. Training should also help individuals understand the RO’s requirements and procedures for ethics review; and to understand how to access additional help, both internal and external to the RO.
Training is likely to be required for:
- individual researchers
- research supervisors
- research administrators, managers, and heads of research groups, centres or departments
- members of local and organisation-wide research ethics committees (RECs), including external members
- postgraduate students in departmental or organisational ethics review requirements (in addition to a more general ethics training)
- undergraduate students whose projects may require ethics review.
ROs should build a programme of support and provide resources to aid staff in understanding and implementing this framework and to recognise the ethics concerns in their work, whether as individual researchers or as members of a departmental or organisation-wide review body responsible for implementation or compliance. The nature of such resources depends on the size of the organisation and the research it conducts. This might include:
- Web-based resources such as flow-charts or algorithms to help identify whether a proposed study requires formal ethics review, and the steps that must be taken, whether according to the ESRC framework or another appropriate framework.
- An ethics review handbook or online resource that states the ROs standards and expectations with regard to the ESRC framework, and how staff can ensure they comply with these expectations. This could form part of a larger resource covering other ethics review frameworks as well as training mentioned above.
- The use of approved protocols for commonly occurring situations. It will be the responsibility of the REC to approve the suggested protocol for the individual proposals.
In order to facilitate greater transparency and the sharing of solutions to ethics dilemmas, ROs are encouraged to publish their approved protocols on the web for use by others. ROs giving access to their approved protocols cannot be expected to enter into any discussion on their use. Those making use of such protocols will need to justify to their own RO why the suggested protocol is appropriate for their research.
All REC members should have sufficient knowledge of ethics issues. We encourage ROs to support REC members with training/seminars which would help them to make effective ethical judgments and broaden their understanding of potential benefit and risk associated with novel use and re-purposing of data (eg publicly-available data accessed through social media) and impact and dissemination activities.
ROs should recognise the importance of ethics review by making workload allowances for REC members, and should endeavour to equip RECs and other supervisory staff with a critical framework for good ethical practice, as well as the necessary resources to carry out their responsibilities efficiently, effectively and independently.
These resources should include, as a minimum, appropriate training for the members in the ethical, legal and scientific aspects of the research that their REC reviews; adequate administrative and clerical support, and adequate resources, including recognition in workload planning and the allocation of academic responsibilities, to carry out reviews with due care and attention and to attend meetings of the REC. Any additional resourcing required should fall within the RO's own budget.
However, it should be remembered that the additional costs incurred in carrying out ethics review specifically for ESRC-funded research are eligible costs under the arrangements for Research Councils to meet a proportion of the full economic costs of research.
Student research and ethics review
The same principles should apply to student research as to all other research. We recommend that ROs should establish procedures specifically for reviewing research projects undertaken by undergraduate students and students on taught postgraduate courses. Student research poses particular challenges in relation to ethics review because of the large numbers, short timescales and limited scope of the projects involved. Supervisors of research postgraduate students should work closely with their students in considering ethical aspects of proposed research in line with this framework.
The same high ethical standards should be expected in student-led research. It cannot be assumed that all students’ projects involve minimal risk. Student projects involving research potentially requiring a full ethics review may need careful consideration. However, in many cases student research may be managed at school/department level and overseen by a light-touch departmental ethics committee. Established RO protocols for commonly occurring research can expedite the review process. It should be made clear to potential research participants that the study is a student-led project. ROs also need to ensure that students are not exposed to undue risk in conducting their research.
The ESRC already provides guidance and information for ESRC-funded students. These guidelines include reference to training in ethics and legal matters. ROs should ensure that training programmes they provide incorporate the range of issues addressed in this framework, to help students embrace an ethics culture from the start of their research careers. Doctoral Training Centres should detail the ethics training that they provide for their students.