There are two main aspects of ethics when conducting qualitative research, procedural ethics and ethics in practice.

Procedural ethics

Procedural ethics involves completing an institutional ethics application form. Completing an ethics form requires you to think about your research protocol, including stating your research question and why it is important;  explaining how your design will answer your research questions, and how your methods are appropriate for your research design.   You will also need to describe in detail -- how you will recruit people to be involved, what they will be asked to do, whether there are any risks associated with participating in your research, whether you have any conflicts of interests and how you will analyse and disseminate your study findings . Prior to being granted ethics approval, you may need to respond to questions raised by the ethics committee if parts of your protocol are unclear or if the information you are providing to participants does not enable them to fully understand and voluntarily agree to participating. After submitting your ethics application, you may be asked to submit some changes prior to approval.

Nabreesa spoke about how she was required to submit an amendment, as her project was part of a larger study. Leonie spoke about how she had to make changes to her ethics application before she was granted ethics approval.

The process of completing an ethics application (procedural ethics) is helpful in assisting you to develop rigour in your research and identify and refine your research question. Below are some practical strategies for completing your ethics application. It is an excerpt from: Gillam, L., & Guillemin, M. (2018) Overcoming mistrust between Research Ethics Committees and Researchers. In Iphofen, R., & Tolich, M. (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Research Ethics (pp. 270). London, UK: Sage.

Approaching the ethics application with reflexivity

  • Show that you have thought things through from the perspective of the participants

    Before you start your application, mentally 'walk through' your proposed research design and methodology, imagining how it would appear to a person who is approached to be involved in the research. Then plan how you will make sure that you cover the key ethical bases – giving people good information and free choice, protecting their confidentiality (even in the recruitment phase), minimising any negative impacts on them (risk, burden, discomfort, or inconvenience). In particular,consider from the point of view of the potential participants:

    1. What would they want to know – in particular, what might they worry about, or think important?
    2. How would they feel about what you are asking them to do?
    3. What would it be like for them to actually participate?
    4. What might go wrong for them – what could turn their participation into a bad experience?
  • Before you start your application, consider the ethical context

    Think about the role and standard concerns of REC members, and how these would apply to your particular research project. Investigate what sorts of ethical issues are common in this type and field of research – speak to colleagues, look in the literature, look at the relevant research ethics guidelines to see if there is something specific about the research methods or participants that you plan to use in this project.

  • Show that your research project has academic/scientific merit

    It is part of the role of REC members to assess whether your research methodology is sound and rigorous enough to be able to produce meaningful results. You need to show that you know what you are doing.

    1. Show that it is based on a good understanding of the literature, including previous studies – make sure you refer specifically to relevant published studies and appropriate literature.
    2. State the aim of the research project clearly and precisely – avoid being woolly, or grand or broad in your application.
    3. Show that the methods proposed will be able to achieve the aim.
    4. Show that you understand the methods you are planning to use – give clear explanations of the methods of sample selection, data collection and analysis.
  • Explicitly identify and address any ethical issues or problems or sensitivities that you can see might or will arise
    1. Show that you take ethics seriously – do not try to cover up, fudge or downplay the ethical issues.
    2. Show that you understand the nature of the ethical issues, and use the language that the ethics committee members use. Talk specifically about ethical principles such as confidentiality, consent, voluntary choice, risk/harm etc. This is a translational task to some extent – translating from the often-implicit values language and sensibilities embedded in qualitative research, to the explicit, rather hard-nosed language of research ethics.
    3. Describe the strategies you will use, or the design/methods you have adopted, to minimise the ethical problems. Explain why you have chosen these strategies (for example, that you have used them successfully in previous research).
  • Write in clear and plain language
    1. REC members are not experts in your particular research field – you need to make it understandable to them.
    2. REC members may well assess your ability to explain your research to the participants on the basis of how well you can explain it to them in the application form.
    3. REC members will pay particular attention to the lay summary of the project, which you give early on in the application, and to the Plain Language/Participant Information Statement.
  • Do a professional job just as you would for a grant application

    REC members may make an assessment of how seriously you are taking the process (and by extension, the importance of conducting research in an ethical way) on the basis of the quality of your application.

    1. Pay attention to proof-reading for spelling, typographical errors, and consistency of information.
    2. Check to see all the necessary sections are completed, and all additional documents are attached.
    3. Beware of cutting and pasting from other applications, or from one answer to another – if you do, check carefully, and make sure the pasted section makes sense in the context, directly answers the question in the application form, and does not contain information that actually refers to a different project.

Resources for procedural ethics

Ethics in practice

Ethics in practice refers to ethical issues (often unexpected incidents that can arise in qualitative research—that may not have been foreseen or discussed in your procedural ethics application and which raise concerns or uncertainty about how to best respond). For example, if a participant become anxious during an interview or if they disclose information about themselves or their family or colleagues and you are not sure whether to keep this confidential or report it to someone).

Resources for ethics in practice

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