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.