I am part-way through ethics review for my PhD research project. I previously sought and obtained ethics approval for earlier masters research. So I have minimal amount of prior experience with an ethics application and my two projects are quite different.* Through discussions with friends and acquaintances interested in legal education research, I am aware some are irritated by the ethics review process, with a few avoiding research involving human participants altogether.
I am no expert in this, but what is the big deal really? We’re lawyers, right? We’re trained to work with professional ethics and ethical dilemmas and processes to resolve them, are we not? Why should ethics applications be so daunting?
In Australia any research involving human participants is expected to comply with The National Statement On Ethical Conduct In Human Research (March 2007). Legal education and practical legal training research involving human participants such as teachers and students should comply with guidelines within the statement. It is possible that initial review of a research design determines it to be ‘low risk’ and that a full review by a Human Research Ethics Committee (HREC) is not necessary.
An application to a HREC will usually involve completion of the National Ethics Application Form (NEAF), together with supplementary documents such as a Plain Language Statement (PLS) and examples of methods used to contact potential participants. The number and type of supplementary documents will depend in part on the methodology and methods you are using for your research. For example, if you are using an online questionnaire you will need to include this. Similarly, if you are using semi-structured interviews you should include the interview schedule.
Most of the comments I’ve heard are to do with the voluminous NEAF or the perceived pedantry of ethics committees (and their ‘gatekeepers’), so I comment briefly about these two aspects.
The NEAF is a lengthy document and requires care and attention to detail, although substantial parts are utilitarian and not difficult to complete. I think parts of the NEAF (particularly Parts 5 and 6, dealing with the project design and the participants) force researchers to really think through the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the research design. It can help to think of the NEAF and ethics approval process generally as part of developing and improving the research design. Using insights from working with the NEAF, you would probably revise your PLS and supplementary documents.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned regarding the NEAF is to take time to read parts of the National Statement linked to each section or sub-section of the NEAF. Doing this usually identifies key statements relevant to the specific project that can be adopted as the ‘answer’. Reading the National Statement improves understanding of the rationale underlying NEAF questions (and likely questions from a HREC).
Reading widely around research methodologies and methods will also identify key concepts and terms likely to be familiar to HREC panel members. For example, terms like ‘convenience sampling‘ or ‘snowballing‘ would communicate specific meanings for HREC panel members. Appropriate use of terminology expedites communication and inspires confidence in the researcher.
It is worthwhile to check whether your HREC has issued human research ethics guidelines, particularly those aimed as specific methods such as covert observation, focus groups, interviews, and case studies, for example. The guidelines will flag issues specific to those methods that ought to be addressed in the NEAF and draft PLS. Addressing specific issues connected to particular methods is more likely to satisfy the HREC you have appropriately addressed relevant aspects of the research design. Guidelines will also help you to express clearly your thinking about how you are going to conduct ethical research with your chosen methods.
Do not be put off expanding your legal education research to involve human participants. We need substantial original contributions to knowledge in legal education and practical legal training, and research involving humans are integral to this. The ethics approval process is a dimension of research that can be constructive for improved understanding.
* The two projects are different in a number of ways. The masters project involved student satisfaction with online discussions as a teaching medium, used the ‘community of inquiry’ theoretical framework and substantially quantitative methods. The PhD project investigates how lawyers who teach practical legal training engage with scholarly activities around their teaching work (scholarship of teaching). The PhD project draws on qualitative methodologies and methods, and a theoretical framework derived from Bourdieu’s sociological theories and de Certeau’s cultural theory of practice in everyday life. Consequently, many aspects of the ethics approval process for each project are different.