What needs to go in the ethics statement?
Whoever your funder will be, it’s a good idea for your ethics statement to address the six key principles set out in the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics. So you need to be able to explain how:
- you are ensuring quality and integrity of your research;
- you will seek informed consent;
- you will respect the confidentiality and anonymity of your research respondents;
- you will ensure that your participants will participate in your study voluntarily;
- you will avoid harm to your participants; and
- you can show that your research is independent and impartial.
When developing this website, the guidebook team interviewed representatives of several major funding bodies (see our acknowledgements section). They all emphasised the need to make sure that you demonstrate that you have given proper, careful consideration to ethics questions. They noted that peer reviewers will always be asked to comment on the ethics of the proposed research, and highlighted the following:
One funder commented that ‘there are ethical considerations for all proposals’ – regardless of methodology – and went on to say that it shows a lack of understanding to consider design in isolation without accounting for ethics. So, you can strengthen your proposal by addressing ethics carefully and in a way that reflects in detail on the ethical implications of the study design.
Another funder commented that applications may be less likely to be funded if they say ‘no ethical considerations apply’ or if the ethics statement is clearly a ‘cut and paste job’ and does not show a nuanced reflection on the particular questions raised by the proposed research.
Funders also emphasised that ethics questions apply throughout the lifecourse of a project. So, you need to consider the possible questions at each stage of your planned work and address each of those in the ethics section of the proposal. You can use the ‘ethics principles’ section of the website – which is based on the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics – to help you do this.
What if? What can be anticipated?
The funders that we interviewed highlighted the importance of thinking ‘what if’ – of taking time to try and anticipate the unintended consequences of your research. Of course, this depends very much on the topic you are researching, but you need to think about what to do if you do accidentally cause distress to your research respondents through your questions. Even if you think it’s unlikely, it can be difficult to predict what causes people to become upset. Is it ever ok for people to cry? If they do, do you know how you will respond? What if they get angry with you?
Especially when researching sensitive subjects, research can sometimes be upsetting for researchers. Is that possible in your study? What plans can you put in place to deal with that?