Applying for ethics approval

At the meeting

When you attend the meeting, you can expect to be questioned and challenged on the decisions that you have made about ethics issues in your project. That’s to be expected, if only because the committee members are likely to consider such discussion to be a necessary part of the review process, and the main purpose of the meeting. So you shouldn’t be surprised if you are challenged, and you should try not to take it personally. The committee members’ perspective would be that they are being thorough in doing their job.

Remember too that almost all ethics committees now include lay members who do not have a background in research.  Think about this in terms of the clarity of what you are saying, and bear in mind that you may be asked to explain your rationale for things that - to you - are customary research practice.

Responding to feedback in the meeting

Our general advice on dealing with ethics committee responses also applies to feedback from a committee in a meeting. One of the most useful (and challenging) characteristics of ethics committees is that they offer a fresh perspective on the ethics issues in your work, and that’s why they may pick up issues you have not addressed. So it’s important to listen carefully – resist the temptation to disagree instinctively in order to defend your application – and make sure you are clear about what is being said:

  • What are they asking you?
  • What are they concerned about?
  • What are they suggesting you should do?
  • What are the implications of that for your plans?

If you are not sure, ask them to explain more, or (tactfully) ask them to clarify what they are asking. You can also use this strategy to give you a bit of useful thinking time to rehearse or plan your response.

If you do disagree with what they are suggesting, ask yourself why. Is it because it makes more work for you or your team (e.g. revising a consent form), or will it have more major implications for your project design, timescale, or costs. See our section on responding to comments from ethics committees – the advice there about picking your battles holds true in this context too.

What to do if committee members seem hostile

Ethics committees are made up of groups of individuals, with different styles. Some may have a better understanding of your project than others, and they may vary in how sympathetic they are to your planned methodological approach.

In general, advice on dealing with difficult people in the workplace holds true for managing difficult behaviour in defending your research to an ethics committee:

  • listen to what is being said;
  • try to remind yourself that it’s not a personal attack, it’s a difference of opinion; and
  • try to offer a compromise, a constructive way through the dilemma.

Interpersonal dynamics come in to play here. Occasionally, you will meet someone on an ethics committee who is very fixed in their position, and who is unwilling to back down. You may feel equally sure that your approach is right, and frustrated that they appear to be saying your project is unethical. It’s a difficult situation to be in, but there are strategies that you can try:

  • Try to avoid getting into a one-to-one argument or debate with any one individual.
  • You may not to be able to persuade one difficult individual, but perhaps you can persuade the wider group. Remember that decisions are made by the committee, not by the individual.
  • You’re unlikely to win a straight argument, because the approval decision is in the committee’s hands – by arguing you could be seen as trying to undermine their authority, and inadvertently entrench their position.
  • Instead, aim to show how reasonable and ethical your approach is. This is where preparation in advance of the meeting can really be helpful, because it enables you to show that you have given very careful thought to ethics considerations, and to articulate your rationale in detail when you’re under pressure.

At the end of the meeting

Whilst different committees work in different ways, it is unlikely that you will be given a formal decision at the end of the ethics committee meeting. More usually, the committee will discuss and agree their decision after you have left the meeting, and you will receive feedback in writing (by letter or email), to which you can then respond (see our section on ethics committee responses). But, if you have any doubts, it is worth checking before you leave the meeting:

  • Make sure that you understand what will happen next. Will the committee write to you? What is the timescale?
  • Don’t forget to thank them for their time – even if you don’t feel like it, it might just help.