Embedding ethics into the research process

Denise Coster illustrates how having a dedicated research ethics committee supports evidence-based practice

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Researchers understand the importance of ethics. But, sometimes, filling in submissions feels like a “tick box” exercise of saying the right things, rather than thinking through important issues.

It can feel as if ethical approval is just about jumping through hoops.

At the NSPCC, we have our own research ethics committee.

I’m going to explain how this really helps us to think about ethical issues in a constructive and thorough way, taking into account the needs of researchers and participants.

Our research ethics committee

The research ethics committee reviews all research and evaluation to be commissioned or conducted by the NSPCC.

It provides a thorough, impartial examination of the ethical issues in a collaborative and proportionate way, ensuring the rights, dignity and wellbeing of research participants are safeguarded.

The committee weighs up the balance between the social value of research and the risks associated for participants and staff: only ethically acceptable research is conducted.

The chair, deputy chair and two members of the committee come from outside the NSPCC, but the committee also has members who are NSPCC staff.

5 benefits of the committee

We could just send our evaluation and research proposals to external ethics committees for approval. These include NHS Research Ethics Service (RES), the National Social Care Research Ethics Committee or university run committees.

But we feel there are 5 main benefits of having our own committee.

1. A constructive process

The committee aims to facilitate and support ethical research as part of a process of improvement, supporting and engaging with applicants to help them develop ethically sound proposals.

As one applicant said: “It feels like they are trying to get you to a stage where you can actually do the research, rather than jump through invisible hoops. It’s a constructive process”.

2. Avoiding delays

At the NSPCC we often engage participants from vulnerable groups, such as children who have experienced abuse, and it may take a long time to recruit them. Having an ethics committee embedded in our practice helps us to avoid any additional delays and means we aren’t held up by lengthy approval processes.

3. High quality research

The committee is dedicated to supporting high quality research, which improves children’s lives. It is less likely to approve research where it sees too much risk and no wider social value, which is particularly important when working with vulnerable people.

4. Child-centred research

Experts in safeguarding and research with young people sit on the committee. They have extensive experience of working in services with young people, and scrutinise the impact of research on the children taking part. Other research ethics bodies may not have as much understanding of the issues that vulnerable children face, or how they will experience research, and this could ultimately lead to the focus on the child being lost.

5. Understanding and alignment

The committee sees many applications relating to the work of the NSPCC and is very aware of the associated risks and challenges. It uses this knowledge and understanding to look closely at the detail and implications of any decisions made.

An essential function

The committee is essential in supporting the NSPCC’s research and evaluation. It helps us achieve our aim of being an evidence-based organisation.

Most importantly, it ensures that staff and service users are given the opportunity to participate in research and evaluation - and that the risks of doing so are minimised - so we can all work together to ensure that services are as effective as possible.

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