How to write a successful ethics application

Dr Kathryn Snow is an epidemiologist whose work focuses on vulnerable populations.

She has a particular interest in tuberculosis, viral hepatitis, adolescent health, and the health of people in criminal justice settings.

Kat advises colleagues from diverse backgrounds on research ethics, study design, and data analysis.

She tweets from @epi_punk.

Photo from Bernard Hermant |

Photo from Bernard Hermant |

The word “ethics” strikes fear into the hearts of most early career researchers.

Some of the reasons are beyond our control, but there’s actually a lot we can do to make our own experiences of the ethics approval process less painful.

I’m writing this from two perspectives: as an early career researcher (I finished my PhD in 2019), and as a committee member (I’ve sat on an ethics advisory group since the start of my PhD in 2014).

The job of ethics committees is to identify the possible risks in a project, and then assess whether the research team:

  1. are aware of the risks.
  2. are taking appropriate steps to minimise them.
  3. have a plan to handle anything that does go wrong.

To do this, ethics committees need information. If you want your ethics application to get through the process as quickly as possible, you need to give the committee enough detail so that they understand your project and how you are managing any risks.

Getting your application as right as possible the first time makes the whole process go more quickly. If you don’t provide enough information, the committee will come back with questions. You may need to resubmit your application to the next meeting, which could be a month or two away.

Spending more time on your application for the first meeting can save you months later on! Read more of this post

Publishing your data: the ethics question

Margaret HentyMargaret Henty is Senior Policy Advisor with the Australian National Data Service (ANDS).

In practice, this means looking at all of those legal and policy issues which have an impact on data sharing and use, such as copyright, licensing, ethics, Gov 2.0, etc and keeping an eye on developments overseas.

ANDS is building the Australian Research Data Commons: a cohesive collection of research resources from all research institutions, to make better use of Australia’s research data outputs.

Kwakiutl mask and unidentified boy (circa 1920; source: Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation)

Kwakiutl mask and unidentified boy (circa 1920; source: Museum of the American Indian/Heye Foundation)

Last April, I published a short item in this blog about the importance of data citation if you are to get recognition for publishing your data and making it available to others.

There is increasing evidence that making your data available to others (or, to use a more familiar term, publishing your data) can enhance your research reputation. But consider the case of researchers whose work involves human subjects who might feel that their data cannot be published. This presents something of a challenge: how to handle sensitive data so that others can use it, while following ethical guidelines and making sure that the data cannot be wrongly used.

Data can be sensitive for a variety of reasons. Privacy considerations mean that personal, identified data cannot usually be made available to others. Security considerations might mean that you would be putting people at risk if you made some data available. You might also consider the possibility that your data describes the last remaining population of some rare species and, while most of the data might be fine to share, you don’t want anyone to put the species at risk by providing location information (think of the Wollemi Pine).

All is not lost.


Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 2

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it. His ORCID is 0000-0002-4876-7900

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

As mentioned in Part 1, these posts are a personal account based on things that went awry in my experience of community-based research. I have listed a couple of dot points on practical steps readers might consider to manage the risks I encountered, in case you are contemplating or currently working in a community-based research role.

I’m also keen to hear other experiences and perspectives of this form of research practice, either in the comments or by e-mail. A quick note: I never write or blog about my current place of work, and I’d encourage commenters to de-identify your own places of work.

Points 1-3 cover supervision, ethics and discipline, and they appear in Part 1.

4. Ownership

This is an extremely vexed issue in community-based research practice. In a community organisation the board will have a policy on who can speak on the organisation’s behalf. This is typically restricted to senior management.

Senior managers in some organisations misuse these policies, and require their staff to publish articles and submit conference abstracts in the senior managers’ names.

In this situation, working in that role will damage your career by creating a publication gap, and it will doubtless corrode your motivation as well.

  • Prevent: negotiate before starting – Who owns the work and end products? Who can put their name to it? What happens when you leave? Can you publish from it?


Seven issues in community-based research practice – Part 1

Daniel Reeders writes social marketing and public health strategy for a living.  He writes a blog, Bad Blood, about stigma and public health, and tweets as @onekind, for fun.

He has a Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws (Melbourne) and is currently enrolled in a Masters in Public Health at a university he prefers not to name in case he decides to write about it. His ORCID is 0000-0002-4876-7900

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

Safety first (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

I got started in community-based research more or less by accident. I had always used interviews and focus groups as a social marketer in HIV prevention, but I could see neglected issues in my field of practice that seemed to warrant in-depth investigation.

They involved personally catastrophic but fairly uncommon events in small groups, such as HIV infection among gay and bisexual men from migrant and refugee backgrounds.

Survey and statistical methods can’t get much purchase on rare events in small groups of vulnerable people, but funders and service providers were nonetheless waiting for what they considered ‘real’ research to quantify the issue before taking action.

I wanted to break this impasse, even if it meant producing research that doesn’t count as ‘evidence’. Something is better than nothing, right?*


Ethics and Publishing

Rod Pitcher (@Rod_Pitcher) is a PhD student in Education at The Centre for Higher Education, Learning and Teaching at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia. The focus of his research is the metaphors that researchers use when describing their work. He has recently launched a blog, Rod’s Business, and is active on Facebook.

His e-book, Advice to a Troubled PhD Student, is available for free download.

No parking sign from Japan, with cute image of a policeman

No parking, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Writing is an important part of all academic endeavour, particularly writing journal papers.

The experience of writing such a paper is an important part of the overall learning during one’s PhD. The lessons that can be learnt from it will provide a good basis for any future academic work.

This post is about a very important lesson I learnt about my attitude to publication during my PhD. I learnt important lessons about myself and the way I behave in ethically difficult situations. I came out of the situation with a clear conscience, without feeling that I had acted unethically.

Let me tell you about my experience:

Two of my publication activities involved me in ethical dilemmas. How I resolved them might be of interest and use to others in similar situations. In such things, we can’t always learn from our own mistakes. Sometimes, it is better to learn from the way other people handle the difficult situation without causing problems to themselves or others.

New results

After some revision, one of my journal papers was accepted, with publication promised at a later date some six months ahead. During the wait for publication, my research took a new turn that rendered the work described in the accepted paper out of date. I had to decide whether to withdraw the paper from publication because it was out of date, or allow publication because the piece would still have value.

In the six months preceding publication, I agonised over that decision. In the end, I found myself unable to decide, so I allowed publication to go ahead. On publication, I received some interesting and useful comments from people who had read it.

Should I have allowed publication or not? I think that that is a dilemma other researchers must face at some time in their careers. Given that there is often anything up to twelve months or more between submission and publication, it would seem to me that there is often a case to be made that the research is out of date (dare I say ‘obsolete’?) at the time of publication. The author then has to decide if there is justification for the publication or whether the paper should be withdrawn.


Keeping everyone happy? (Community House Rules: Part 2)

Melissa Phillips has worked for over ten years with NGOs supporting refugees and asylum-seekers in Australia and the UK. She also lived in South Sudan from 2005-2009, where she worked with UN agencies and NGOs. These days Melissa is a full-time PhD student at the University of Melbourne on an industry-funded project. Her world seems a lot smaller but thankfully her research interests in forced migration and migration studies take her to many faraway places from the comfort of her desk. 

If you’ve followed the Community House Rules advice (as well as that presented in the fantastic comments), found your research partner/s, submitted a successful proposal, and agreed on the minutiae of your project agreement, you’re probably cashed-up and raring to go!

The following considerations are not intended as kill-joys for those of you with your hiking boots on ready to get into your fieldwork. Instead, they map out obstacles that can de-rail projects, and I suggest ways to avoid getting your boots dirtier than you may have intended.

These considerations do add more time to the planning and preparation stage, but if you’ve worked hard to get this far, a few more months won’t hurt. Trust me!

Danger (Photo by Tseen Khoo)

How is the project structured?

  • There are numerous ways to structure a project governance body that provides feedback and comment as the project progresses. It could be, for instance, an advisory group (composed of researchers and partners), or a wider Steering Group (with community representatives). Remember that consultation raises expectations and can lead to unexpected problems but, if it’s done well, groups can involve other influential players in the research and encourage a sense of project ownership.
  • When I was a little girl (ok, an applicant for a doctoral scholarship), I dreamed that my project would be consultative, representative and useful. So, I thought a Participatory Action Research approach would be the best fit because it encouraged real-time feedback. When I grew up, I realised this decision was not up to me, but it may be something you can consider.
  • On a more mundane note, you need to establish the key contacts for your project. The people who sign project agreements are usually too busy to get involved on an everyday basis. Make sure you know who you should be talking to in your partner organisation/s, and always get the contact number for the CEO’s Executive Assistant!