Learning to Love Your Ethics Form

In “Using the Structure of the Research Degree to Help you“, we discussed the importance of accepting and embracing the processes and checks of the degree.

In this section, we’re going to look at how research is built on these checks, why they are important to your work and how they can provide you with reassurance and confidence.

Even for experienced researchers, who have been granted Professorships for their work, checks and processes still exist for their research. This is because these checks help to ensure the quality and ongoing validity of their work.

We’ll take the ethics form as an example (ethics forms differ from institution to institution and between discipline areas, so we’ll confine ourselves to the common questions.)

Most ethics forms begin with a literature review. The purpose of this is not to check that you’ve read some paper but to establish the need for the proposed research. Right away this is protecting you. 

If there is no research in the area that you are proposing and no validated methodology to approach the question, then you are, in fact proposing to establish a new field. This is a perfectly legitimate aim in the long term but not something you are likely to achieve within a research Masters or a PhD. It’s something that will take years. Where researchers have successfully established new fields, they began by asking smaller questions within an already defined field. For instance, behavioural economics developed out of traditional economics with a sprinkling of psychology. 

Being able to reference work that you can legitimately build on tells you that you there will be enough material to work with and that you aren’t going to waste years trying to find something or developing something that no one will accept.

On the other hand, if the area has been thoroughly researched over years, the literature review can ensure that you have identified a real gap in knowledge that is worthwhile exploring. In a well-researched field, making an original contribution to knowledge can be much more difficult unless you have found such a gap.

Then you come to your research design. Having to produce this in advance ensures that your research has a clear and legitimate path to follow, providing focus and structure and also ensuring that your time will be productive. 

The series of ethical questions that follow can help you to interrogate your research design, looking for holes. When we initially create a design, we can make assumptions without even realising. Using the ethical questions can help you to view the research from a series of different perspectives, bringing your assumptions to light so you can address them.

All of which, means that once you’ve completed the form you should have a research project, that is well designed, has been robustly interrogated, is well founded on previous research and is addressing a gap in current knowledge. 

The ethics form is a good friend, sometimes it can tell you inconvenient truths but it has your long term interests at heart.