The Research Ethics Guidebook: a free online resource for social science researchers

What is it?

The Research Ethics Guidebook – www.ethicsguidebook.ac.uk – is a new free website for social science researchers, funded by ESRC, through the Researcher Development Initiative (http://www.rdi.ac.uk/).  It provides a user-friendly and interactive online resource for early career and experienced researchers, bringing together information, training and practical guidance in relation to social science research ethics.

Why was it developed?

Recent years have seen a substantial growth in regulatory requirements for research governance, and in particular, research ethics review.  The breadth of social science as a discipline means that social science researchers can encounter disparate regulatory frameworks, requirements and legislation, including those designed for other disciplines such as clinical medicine.  It can be challenging for researchers – especially those who are less experienced – to negotiate their way through all the different systems that can apply to their research.  At the same time, much has been written about the bureaucratic downsides of formal ethics review systems, which can add time to the research process, and which can be criticised for encouraging a ‘tick-box’ mentality, whereby ethical practice requires conformity to procedural norms.

What does it offer?

The Ethics Guidebook was developed to address these challenges, helping researchers to navigate their way through the regulatory requirements that apply to their research, whilst acting as an aid to reflection and discussion, and promoting good practice. It provides practical guidance and information, but also aims to encourage researchers to think of ethics as a continuous, dialogic and reflective process that is embedded throughout the lifespan of a project, and to help them use ethics review procedures as a tool to reflect on ethics considerations.

Easy to navigate, the site is designed to help researchers pinpoint their specific needs, reflect on them and find relevant guidance. It spans the research process, from the inception of an idea to the dissemination of findings, with signposts to more detailed information, and prompts for reflection and questioning.  A section on ‘Key Questions’ takes users straight to an area of the site containing advice about the permission and approval required to carry out research with different groups.  An interactive ‘ethics principles page’ is built around the six key ethics principles in the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics.

The site provides a resource for researchers engaged in funded research, from help with writing a research proposal, to applications for ethics approval, or support in dealing with ethics dilemmas that can arise during a project.  It is also a resource for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching – for research methods assignments or as a basis for tutorial discussions, or for undergraduate or postgraduate research supervision.  It can also be used as a tool for staff development – for example, for training of ethics committee members or research supervisors.

Guidebook development

The Guidebook website was developed by a multi-disciplinary team at the Institute of Education, University of London:  Janet Boddy, Priscilla Alderson, Will Gibson, Sean Jennings, Virginia Morrow, Tim Neumann, and Rebecca Rees.  Development was informed by consultation with key stakeholders (research funders, regulatory bodies, professional associations, and academic experts), and by user testing at the Institute of Education and in other academic centres in the UK.

For more information, contact:

Dr. Janet Boddy, Thomas Coram Research Unit, Institute of Education, 20 Bedford Way, London WC1H 0AL.

Email:  j.boddy@ioe.ac.uk

Telephone:  020 7612 6957

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Shirley Wishart

The research ethics guidebook site has a section on research under the English Mental Capacity Act 2005 and the Adults with Incapacity ( Scotland) Act 2008. This is incorrect. The Scottish Act dates from 2000

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