Six steps to reduce Ethics process angst

ethics girl

Right, so Vicky Gorton has asked me to blog about the pitfalls of the Ethics process for EdRes Postgrad students, which I am happy to do as I have recently climbed out of most of them, so the memory is still fresh and the trauma is in need of analysis (it isn’t that bad really, not really, honest). It is also excellent timing as it provides me with a legitimate, stimulating and much needed form of procrastination, which is funny really, as that is the first pitfall that I am going to warn you about.

  1. Procrastination – Don’t do it! With most of the MA/PhD process procrastination can be healthy, it allows you time to reflect, process and work things through; with the ethics process, procrastination will just cost you valuable time when you don’t have it! As soon as you can, get hold of the departmental ethics templates and have a good look at the information they require and start thinking through what the ethical issues might be in your study and how you are going to mitigate them. Read the most recent BERA ethical guidelines, talk to other Postgrads, talk to your supervisor and if possible talk to whoever you are liaising with to get access to your research site. Complete the pFact questionnaire as soon as you know what you are planning to do and do the Stage 1 (A) form, so that you know whether or not you need to complete the Stage 1 (B) form, which is the one that will make the whole process more lengthy (hint: if you are using human participants you WILL need to do Stage 1 (B) and you are going to hope it is low risk!). Ideally this will take you a week or two – NOT months, which leads me on to my next point.
  2. Timeframes – are relative! What is plenty of time to you is last-minute to the Ethics people, what is a lengthy wait to you, is a timely fashion to them. Officially you can expect a two week turnaround for your ethics documentation, in reality it can take several months, particularly if you don’t communicate, which is the next thing you need to think about.
  3. Communication – needs work. What is obvious to you may not be obvious to your supervisor or reviewer and vice-versa. You need to be extremely clear but also succinct in the outline proposal on the Stage 1 (B) form. Getting this right first time can make a big difference to how quickly you get your approval back and how many amendments your reviewer will require. Running this form by your supervisor at an early stage can be helpful with this. Use the departmental templates for Consent, Information and Access, with the caveat that requirements are changing all the time. If you can, check with your PostGrad Co-ordinator and it is even worth ringing or emailing the Ethics people (contact details are on the forms) and checking things like current requirements on encrypting data and timeframes for storing it. Doing this now can help reduce some of the fear factor that can become paralysing and lead back to prevarication…
  4. Fear – to badly paraphrase Frank Herbert in Dune, do not fear, fear is the mind-killer (yes I know that I just split an infinitive – I’m allowed to, I’m a trekker). It is possible to become so anxious at this stage that you stop engaging with the process altogether, go back to reading, planning and drinking coffee and don’t submit the completed paperwork to your supervisor for another few precious weeks – this is a mistake! As soon as you  think that everything is complete then send it off to your supervisor for checking and make the earliest appointment to see them to discuss it before they sign it off. As soon as it is signed off, then get it into the system and forget about it for the next fortnight, go and do something rewarding and then get on to what you actually should be doing. Before you send it to Joanne, do one last thing – proofread everything again, and then do it again!
  5. Proofreading – be meticulous. It seems a bit ridiculous but not proofreading properly will not lead to your documentation being signed off subject to the corrections, as you might think. Instead you will have to make the corrections and then resubmit (and wait for a few more weeks) with all corrections highlighted before it will be signed off, and that is even if you have just missed out a couple of full stops! By this point, this will be wasted time that you urgently need in order to start negotiating access and collecting data, ending up twiddling your thumbs while you wait for approval is frustrating and costly. Keep checking where you are in the process and don’t be afraid to make contact.
  6. Monitoring – if you are still waiting after three or four weeks try emailing the Ethics people to see how long it is likely to take to get approval, they probably won’t answer but it will almost certainly speed things up. If you still haven’t heard anything a week later then go back to your Post-Grad Co-ordinator and ask them to chase it for you. The ethical approval process is like everything else in life: don’t ask, don’t get.

So avoiding pitfalls in a nutshell – don’t put off today or you will regret tomorrow, get your timings right, talk to people, be brave, quality control and keep tabs on things –  and yes, I really am an Essex girl with a lisp!


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