Research Support

Research Ethics

Dublin City University endeavours to ensure that all research carried out by DCU researchers is ethically sound and adheres to the highest standards of research integrity. All research projects must be conducted in accordance with the law, and also according to acceptable ethical standards. Maintaining well-established ethical standards is an important aspect of upholding the integrity of the research process. Ethically questionable research can reflect negatively on the reputation and liability of both researchers and the University. Research may place burdens on participants or put them at increased risk of harm which could be avoided or reduced. Such burdens or harm can be physical, psychological, social or financial.

The following sections outline the role of the DCU Research Ethics Committee in this process, and provide guidelines on the levels of review conducted. Researchers should take a look at our research resources to inform the ethical assessment of their project, prior to commencing the ethics application process.


Information and Guidance

The DCU Research Ethics Committee (REC) facilitates the ethical review and approval process by providing feedback on research ethics submissions so that any risk of harm is minimised and various ethical principles are promoted. The committee includes researchers from various disciplines and independent non-researchers who volunteer their time to review REC applications. As participation in research projects is voluntary, REC reviews the accuracy, clarity and reading level of information intended for potential participants in order to promote informed consent. 

Please note that undergraduate and taught masters research projects are reviewed at local School level. Students should liaise with their supervisors regarding this process.

The REC reports to the DCU Research Committee and is supported by Research and Innovation Support. Full committee meetings take place approximately every two months. Virtual meetings take place in the interim between full committee meetings. Please find the REC calendar of meeting dates here.

The REC has a number of primary aims:

  • To protect the rights and welfare of human participants and animal subjects in research studies or trials conducted by, or involving, DCU researchers.
  • To facilitate the conduct of ethically sound, legally compliant research at DCU in accordance with national and EU legislation.
  • To advise the Research Committee on the further development of ethical policies and procedures at DCU.

REC functions and responsibilities include:

  • Preparation of advisory documents for the further development of ethical policies and procedures as required.
  • Development of appropriate Standard Operating Procedures for research ethics management.
  • Promotion and communication of research ethics policies and procedures to DCU researchers.
  • Monitoring institutional compliance with relevant EU legislation and with institutional requirements under the terms of externally sponsored research contracts.
  • Establishment of sub-committees and procedures for sub-committees to consider the ethical implications of proposed research projects and to monitor the performance and activities of these sub-committees.

Further information on the REC can be found in the links below:

The DCU Data Protection Unit (DPU) has provided specific guidance for the use of Zoom for research, which can be found here.

Personal data is any data which can be linked to, or identifies, a living person.

Where a research proposal involves the processing of personal data there are certain legal obligations upon the researchers involved, as well as the University, to collect and process it in a manner compliant with data protection legislation (primarily the General Data Protection Regulation – aka. ‘GDPR’).

Many elements of data protection are assessed during the ethical review process. If you intend to process personal data as part of your research, then you must complete the section of the REC Application Form dealing with the management of personal data in full.

The DCU Data Protection Unit (DPU) will provide guidance to staff and students regarding the processing of personal data as part of a research proposal. The DPU also works towards ensuring the University's compliance with GDPR.

Your local unit ‘GDPR Advocate’ can also assist with specific queries related to the management of personal data within a research proposal. For a list of GDPR Advocates by Unit please click here.

Where you intend to collect or process personal data as part of your research you must provide certain details relating to the management of personal data to the potential participants. This is achieved by means of a ‘Plain Language Statement’ and an ‘Informed Consent Form’. Standard templates for these documents are available on the REC website here.

Please refer to the Personal Data FAQ's  for further guidance on personal data and the Research Ethics Process.

The latest information on Ethics and Data Protection generally is available from the European Commission which can be accessed at this link.

The Health Research Board (HRB) also provides additional guidance when using personal data for health research purposes. The guidance can be obtained from the HRB website.

The DCU Data Protection Unit (DPU) has provided specific guidance for the use of Zoom for research, which can be found here.

If you are using Zoom within your research you should have an understanding and familiarity with all the security settings and meeting functions that you plan to use. For instance, knowing how to set a meeting password, how to create breakout rooms, how to make sure that screen sharing is only enabled for hosts, how to stop participants from chatting privately to each other (removing risk of cyber-bullying during sessions), etc. In addition, researchers should ensure that all participants and researchers conduct Zoom meetings/sessions in an appropriate setting (not in a café or in general public spaces).

Researchers will need to formulate a protocol when conducting research online, which should detail all of the safeguards that will be put in place to protect participants and researchers. This online protocol should be included in your REC application form (initial application) or REC amendment form (if amending your previously approved research project).

Some of the most common questions researchers ask about Zoom can be found in the file below.

The Data Protection Unit have confirmed that where forms and survey software platforms are in place such as Drupal and Qualtrics, then these should be used (in accordance with a licence or agreement with DCU or a DCU School/Unit). Google Forms should be avoided, unless its use is absolutely necessary and unavoidable.

If the use of Google Forms is absolutely unavoidable and necessary, then only the version of Google Forms, accessed through your DCU Google Account, may be used (i.e. using DCU’s Google Apps for Education, or “G Suite”).

Additional guidance on the use of Google Forms has been put together by the Data Protection Unit which can be found here. It is recommended that before a Google Form is prepared, tested and eventually published, you ensure that you know and understand that you are working with personal data, and ensure that you design your Google Form with data protection and security in mind.

External Ethics Approval and other required permissions

DCU-based researchers who have obtained ethical approval from appropriately constituted research ethics committees outside DCU should notify DCU REC of this approval. This process involves e-mailing rec@dcu.ie with details of the research and attaching a scanned copy of the external REC approval letter. The DCU REC will then advise whether an application to the DCU REC is required. While DCU may accept notification of ethical approval from other Irish-based ethics committees, it is the researchers’ responsibility to determine if other organisations will accept DCU REC approval in lieu of their own ethical approval processes. 

Even if a project has received REC approval, other permissions may be required to obtain access to potential participants or to conduct research on specific premises. This includes permission to contact students, employees, patients, clients, etc. using email lists, giving presentations to groups, etc. Data Protection issues must also be complied with by researchers. It is the researcher’s responsibility to identify the permissions needed, note these in the relevant REC application and obtain them prior to contacting potential participants or initiating research. Please note that all queries regarding DCU indemnity for those conducting research offsite must be raised with Brendan Blake (Insurance Manager, DCU Finance) who liaises with the DCU insurers on these matters.

Please note that having external REC approval may not suffice for research involving both off-site and on-site (DCU-based) components. For example, a project where some parts of the project occur at a hospital and other parts are conducted at DCU may require ethical approval from both the hospital and DCU REC. Or if a DCU staff member is registered for a PhD with another institution and will be applying to them for ethical approval, but they intend on involving their DCU students as research participants. The type of submission needed at DCU will depend on the specific research being conducted here - please contact rec@dcu.ie to discuss your particular requirements.

For external researchers who are looking to access DCU staff or students as potential participants for their research study, they need to contact rec@dcu.ie with details of their proposed research and the approval letter from the external Research Ethics Committee who reviewed their research study. The DCU REC will then decide whether further review is required, or additional information (e.g. indemnity insurance statement). Note that applicants would still need to obtain permission from the relevant authority (Head of School, Director of Student Support etc.) to access the particular cohort of potential participants.

A REC application differs from a research proposal or a funding application. The focus of the REC application should be on identifying the ethical issues in a project and explaining how these will be addressed. At the same time, the project must be described in sufficient detail that reviewers can evaluate what will be expected of participants and what they will be exposed to. Research methodology is not the focus of ethical review, but methodological quality is an ethical issue. For example, conducting a poorly designed research project raises ethical questions around distributive justice as resources may be wasted. As poor-quality research will rarely produce benefits, the balance of benefits and risks will be disproportionate. REC does not evaluate why specific research methodologies are used, but those selected should be used according to the standards of that research field. They should also be described in plain language so that potential participants can make informed decisions about participation.

A REC application should be submitted only after the research project has been developed and agreed upon by the research team. Some research methods require flexibility as projects develop, and this should be noted in the application. However, REC cannot approve a project while core features remain undecided or are unclearly described. Participant information sheets, informed consent forms, letters to participants, data collection tools (including surveys, interview guides, etc.), and other documents should be submitted with the REC application as they will be used. Allowance can be made for commercial instruments that cannot be copied. In such cases, descriptions or URLs should be provided that allow them to be reviewed.

Research ethics involves the application of a relatively small number of ethical principles to a large variety of research topics and methods. Foremost is the importance of respecting research subjects and participants. Subjects should not be treated as mere means to the ends of others, even when those ends are valuable research results. The research process includes a number of mechanisms designed to promote respect for subjects. This includes providing potential participants enough information in suitable format that they understand what they are being asked to do, why, and the potential risks and benefits. Conflicts of interest must be disclosed as these have the potential to reduce respect for subjects. Such conflicts may be financial, but can include other interests such as ideological or others. These should be identified in the REC application and methods to counteract their influence discussed.

A second ethical principle in research is fairness or justice. Participants should be selected fairly, based on the goals of the research, not convenience or because the researchers have access to or influence over them. The voluntary nature of research participation places a requirement on researchers to design and conduct research well. Poorly designed or flawed research can waste participants’ time and effort, as well as the resources used for the research.

The third general area of ethical concern is subject well-being. REC review involves an assessment of the potential risks and harms involved in the research. These should be clearly described in the REC application, as well as the methods by which harm is minimised. When researchers are students, the supervisory mechanisms should be described so that it is clear how participants will be protected from harm that might arise due to students’ lack of research experience.

The level of ethical review required will be dependent on a combination of risk assessment, the specific population to be researched, and the research methods to be used. The researcher, supervisor and research team (as applicable) should carry out an ethical assessment of their project to determine the appropriate level. Advice on this can be sought in advance of submission via the REC flowchart and rec@dcu.ie . You will be required to provide a brief justification for the final decision reached within your REC application, and this will be evaluated as part of the review. Guidelines on level of review are provided in the sections below - these are deliberately broad because the ethical issues involved in specific research projects will be determined by their details. Examples are provided in each category, but these are not an exhaustive list of the projects falling into each category. 

Once the level of review has been determined, complete the required application form. Please refer to the REC guidelines to inform completion of this documentation.

Check the next submission date for REC review. Please see the current REC calendar of submission and meeting dates. If your application requires Full Committee Review, it can only be reviewed at the next full committee meeting. The REC secretary will communicate with you regarding the results of your application, or if any further information is needed.

Your completed application should be submitted in one electronic pdf file (to include application form and all additional documents) to the Research Ethics Application Portal on Loop.

The application will be reviewed by REC members and the review outcome will be communicated to you via rec@dcu.ie , usually within five working days of the meeting taking place. Your application may be approved outright, approved with minor revisions, remain pending subject to additional information being provided to reviewers, or be recommended for resubmission. If minor revisions are required, you should address the issues raised in your return e-mail and submit the revised application within a week of the notification of the result. Research should not begin until you receive the e-letter of approval from REC.

Not all research requires an application to REC. Such exempted research would be projects that do not involve animals or humans as participants or subjects. Examples include:

  • Research on publicly available information or records, such as: political speeches or debates; newspapers; opinion pieces; open-source qualitative data; company mission statements, etc.
  • Projects involving assessment or audit of standard practice, such as clinical audit or assessment of teaching practice. The focus of exempted projects should be on-going practice or learning.

The boundary between audit and research is not clear-cut, especially if the intention is to publish the results of such studies. Researchers should evaluate whether journals in their field will expect such projects to have received formal ethical approval.

If you feel your project does not require REC approval, you must contact rec@dcu.ie to confirm that this is the case. 

This level of review is to approve relatively low-risk research involving human participants, primarily using social science methodologies in which any personal information collected is not of a sensitive nature.

Examples of projects in this category include:

  • Anonymous surveys in which the topic itself is not likely to elicit significant difficulties for the participants, such as: anonymous internet surveys (e.g. Survey Monkey), street questioning.
  • Observation (without audio or visual recording) of public settings where privacy would not normally be expected, such as observing people on streets or at sports events.
  • Research carrying no risks beyond those of everyday life (as experienced by the intended participant population), such as asking people’s opinions about products or services; asking students about educational experiences; monitoring the impact of daily activities.
  • Interviews with public figures, professionals or others in their professional capacity regarding their professional activities.
  • Analysis of data (e.g. health records) which have had all identifying information removed by the data holder and been provided to the researcher in accordance with data protection legislation.
  • Collection of biological samples which are anonymised and do not require invasive techniques (e.g. hair, nails).

Expedited reviews are conducted by a REC sub-group. This level of review would apply to studies where, although information of a sensitive or personal nature may be sought, the risks to participants are considered moderate. When applying for expedited review, the researcher must consider the level of risk associated with the study and a justification must be provided to REC for why this level of review is sought. The level of risk may be influenced by the following factors: the vulnerability of the research group; the methods used; and the nature of the research itself.

 

Examples of projects in this category include:

  • Research involving specified, REC pre-approved invasive techniques such as blood collection where standardised protocols, necessary training and appropriate supervision are in place. Many invasive techniques are not covered by such protocols.
  • Research in which participants’ personal viewpoints, attitudes or beliefs are collected and participants are identifiable; or where sensitive questions are asked that could lead participants to have strong reactions, either in the long or short term; or where private information is collected.
  • Certain types of research involving vulnerable groups or children where private information is not being collected and the topic is not sensitive. Such research should be unlikely to influence or affect the participants physically, socially, psychologically or spiritually. Examples could include asking people with intellectual disability for their views on a new product being developed for people with their condition, or asking children about an educational programme.
  • Research which requires some inconvenience or minimal time commitment from participants rather than extensive burdens or time commitments.
  • This category may be suitable for some, but not all, research projects involving participants in a dependant relationship with the researcher, such as professionals and patients; supervisors and employees; educators and students. Due account must be taken of how potential conflicts of interest will be addressed. The nature of the relationship, or the level of risk, may require that some projects of this type have full committee review.
  • Projects involving deception of the form that participants are not given a complete list of the objectives in a direct and straightforward manner, such as research requiring that the subject be naïve to some aspects of the research so that their participation can be as authentic as possible.
  • Research involving previously collected human tissues which are no longer identified but for which consent for research was not originally obtained.

Full committee review is intended for research that involves risks to participants which are greater than those found in everyday life. These may be of a physiological, psychological or social nature. Most projects involving vulnerable groups of participants will be included here.

Please note that any new study involving animal subjects must undergo full committee review. Applicants should contact the Bio-Resource Advisory Group (brag@dcu.ie) in the first instance, as there is an internal review meeting to be undertaken with them before any application is submitted to REC.

Examples of projects in this category include:

  • Physically invasive research other than projects involving pre-approved techniques that follow standardised protocols.
  • Research using qualitative methods to investigate highly sensitive topics or those likely to illicit highly personal information, such as those involving significant relationships, suicide, trauma, sexuality or potentially unethical or illegal behaviour. Topics at risk of leading to stigmatisation or discrimination are also included here.
  • Research involving vulnerable groups where the participants are placed at higher than everyday risk. Such research requires careful ethical evaluation as increased vulnerability sometimes increases the risk of harm to participants or generates additional types of harm. However, precise definitions of vulnerability are not universally agreed and research involving vulnerable groups raises different degrees of risk. For example, a project asking abuse survivors about their experience of abuse raises different levels of risk compared to asking the same people about issues unrelated to abuse. Such factors should be discussed clearly in the REC application.
  • Research where the information obtained may have immediate and/or long-term legal, economic or social consequences for participants.
  • Projects with a strong likelihood of identifying illegal activities, even if those committing such acts cannot be identified (such as some internet-based research).
  • Research projects where participants are in a dependant relationship with the researcher and where the research process or its findings may negatively impact the participants.
  • Projects involving surveillance and recording of people without their consent.
  • Projects involving inducements or payments to participate that go beyond travel reimbursement or small expressions of gratitude. The concern is that these could be seen as enticing some people to accept greater risks then they might otherwise be willing to accept.
  • Projects involving deception of the form where participants are provided false or misleading information; or where participants might experience guilt or other distress when the true nature of the research is revealed; or where the research topic is sensitive or the participants vulnerable.
  • Projects that put participants or researchers in harm’s way.
  • Research involving children that might provoke psychological discomfort or distress. Researchers working with children should be aware of child protection guidelines and conduct research involving children to the highest ethical standards. Children protection guidelines in relation to research were published in April 2012 and should be complied with. Researchers involving children should remain current in their knowledge of such responsibilities.
  • Research involving other participants who cannot give full consent themselves, such as people with some types of intellectual disabilities, or patients who are not competent to consent.
  • Research involving the collection of human tissues for research purposes. Research involving ethically controversial tissues such as human embryos, human foetuses or tissues from aborted human foetuses

Applying for Ethical Approval

Information regarding the the ethics application process can be found here.