Research organisations and research ethics committees - ESRC


Our principles: research ethics committees

All parties involved in research have an active role to play in creating and sustaining a culture of rigorous ethical reflection.

We acknowledge that RECs have many competing obligations, with duties to protect participants, researchers and research organisations which mean they are constantly working to achieve many goals; we encourage RECs to engage with researchers in all stages of a project’s research lifecycle.

The principles below should also be considered during any ongoing monitoring of ESRC-funded projects.

Research should aim to maximise benefit for individuals and society and minimise risk and harm

A REC review of a project should consider the ethical conduct of the research whilst also facilitating high quality ethical research; this includes high-impact activities and new forms of research, for example, co-production. The review should be proportionate to the potential benefits and level of risk of the proposed research. RECs should determine the degree of risk and potential harm that may be tolerable in relation to the potential benefits.

The rights and dignity of individuals and groups should be respected

The primary role of the REC review is to ensure that the research will respect the dignity, rights, welfare and, where possible, the autonomy of participants and all parties involved in and potentially affected by the research.

Wherever possible, participation should be voluntary and appropriately informed

The REC should consider the information provided by the researchers regarding consent and voluntary participation, and evaluate how researchers justify and mitigate risks associated with withholding information and the adequacy of any proposed debriefing.

Participants should, wherever possible, take part in research voluntarily and there should not be any coercion or inappropriate influence.

The REC should be confident that participants will be given sufficient information about the research to enable them to make an informed decision about their participation. REC members should also be aware that there may be instances where this is not practical or desirable (for example, for methodological reasons, or covert or crowd research).

Research should be conducted with integrity and transparency

RECs should ensure that they fulfil their role and responsibilities with integrity and record their decisions and feedback in a transparent way.

Lines of responsibility and accountability should be clearly defined

The remit and responsibilities of the RECs should be clear; RECs should be committed to training and development to enable them to fulfil their role. Where the REC feels that it does not have the expertise to review a proposal, it should seek the help of independent bodies or external members. The REC’s performance is subject to review by the research organisation.

The independence of research should be maintained, and where conflicts of interest cannot be avoided they should be made explicit

RECs should be able to conduct ethics review in a wholly independent and impartial manner without any conflicts of interest and with a focus clearly on the ethics of research proposals.

Independence can be achieved by a committee composed of members from a wide range of disciplines and includes external members, within a policy and governance structure that establishes the right of the REC to pass opinions free of influence.

Secondary RECs that comprise members from only one discipline or a small number of closely related disciplines may be regarded as too closely aligned with the interests of researchers.

Further information

Criteria for research ethics committee review

Conflicts of interest, complaints and appeals

Last updated: 15 October 2021

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