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By Cally Guerin

I hear lots of groans when the issue of writing an ethics application is mentioned. For some this feels like a tedious task that is yet another bureaucratic requirement in a system that seems to thrive on endless electronic forms and paperwork. However, I truly believe that ethic applications are a valuable tool for thinking through the details of a research project in the design stage. Doing the hard work at the beginning will head off many of the problems of poorly thought through research – and, of course, ensure that the research itself is thoroughly ethical. An added benefit is the skill development of learning to write for a range of different audiences.

Like writing a Three Minute Thesis presentation, the writing for an ethics application is aimed at a non-specialist audience. The main part of the application is written for the members of ethics committees, people who have detailed expertise in what is required to ensure that any university research is conducted in an ethical manner that respects the rights and wellbeing of human and animal participants. This writing must address the pertinent points of the project and justify the rationale for undertaking the research in the first place.

These documents must be concise. Some universities include maximum word counts for sections to guide writers in the level of detail that is required. The key for doctoral writers is to separate out what is absolutely necessary and what is important to the author but not interesting to the ethics committee. An endless list of references might demonstrate that the candidate has read a vast amount of the existing literature in the field, but the ethics committee just needs to verify that this is a legitimate area of doctoral study with academic precedents. A few key references is all that is required for this document.

It is important in this writing to keep an eye on what the ethics committee needs to know. Their concerns centre on questions such as

    • Is this research beneficial to the participants involved?
    • Will the time and effort required to participate be worth their while?
    • Will participants feel coerced into accepting the invitation to participate?
    • Will any animal testing produce results that are statistically significant with minimal wastage?
    • Is the procedure the least invasive or painful method available?

Then there is the writing that goes into documents that will be read by human participants in the project. These include documents such as recruitment posters and invitation emails, information sheets for participants, a list of interview questions, and unambiguous survey questions. The skills of preparing these documents take doctoral writers into different territory again; they need to be presented in a more friendly, accessible voice than the academic writing that will report on the findings in the thesis or journal article. Practising these genres is valuable for all the different forms of written communication that are central to the highly prized skills learnt during a doctorate.

As well as developing writing skills across multiple genres, preparing all these documents forces clear thinking about the project and how it will be conducted. It is a helpful discipline to ensure that all the ducks are lined up in a row: will the interview questions actually produce answers to the research questions listed in the document? Are the stated aims and objectives of the project consistent with the methods outlined? During the lengthy process of designing doctoral projects, the focus of research can shift; bringing all the parts together in an ethics application is a valuable check that they create a coherent whole.

Writing for an ethics committee is important for ensuring that all research undertaken as part of PhD is ethical; this is crucial to the reputation of the institution and of the researchers themselves. The added bonus is that these documents help doctoral writers learn a lot about designing robust research projects and communicating with varied audiences. Despite what sometimes feels like pernickety feedback from ethics assessors, this process can be a key learning opportunity for doctoral writers. Does this match your own experience of preparing documents for ethics approval?