How we created new research ethics resources that are freely available online

NCRM news
Helen Kara
The wordsThe words

At the end of October 2021, I finished working on a European Commission (EC) research ethics project. The project was called PRO-RES, short for "Promoting integrity in the use of research results in evidence-based inquiry: a focus on non-medical research" (The EC is not known for its snappy titles). Essentially the EC wanted to create an equivalent to the medical research ethics frameworks of Oviedo and Helsinki, for all non-medical researchers.

This was a large and complex three-year project, with a €2.8M budget and 14 teams of researchers from across the EU. The formulation of "non-medical researchers" caused problems, partly because it is unhelpful to define a group by something they are not, partly because the group is so broad, ranging from sociologists to engineers, lawyers to designers, physicists to anthropologists. At times I thought the task we had taken on would prove impossible. Yet, through a series of workshops, a mid-project conference and a bunch of telephone interviews, plus a great deal of thinking, mapping, analysis and writing, we pulled it off.

The output is a framework with three pillars: an accord, with principles for people/organisations to sign up to and endorse; a supplementary toolbox to help people identify or produce ethical evidence; and resources which support both the accord and the toolbox.

What do the resources cover?

Within the resources, there is a glossary of research ethics terms with links to other such glossaries, and a set of foundational statements for ethical research practice, focusing on values and virtues, vices, principles and standards. There is an annotated bibliography available for download with many pages of research ethics references and a short explanation of each one. There are research ethics case studies from a variety of disciplines, giving a good overview of research ethics in practice. There are some consent templates and research protocols. There are examples of research ethics review processes, and information about variations in these systems, as well as methods of ethical appraisal. And there is a collection of some research ethics codes and guidelines.

But that is not all. There is information about ethical considerations throughout the research process: in designing and managing research, literature reviews and document analysis, collecting and managing data, analysing data, presenting and disseminating findings, writing and publishing, and impact and aftercare. There is information about ethical considerations in cross-cutting topics such as types of research, participants, and data; commissioned and funded research; safeguarding and wellbeing; gender awareness and sensitivity; education and training; and influencing policy making. There is even information on finding a research ethics/integrity advisor, should you wish for such a being.

My thoughts on the framework

The framework is not perfect, for a whole range of reasons. It is almost all in English, which inevitably excludes some important perspectives. Even then it is not exhaustive (if you know of something that is missing, please alert us). We know from our extensive discussions around the EU during the development and testing of the framework that we cannot create an output which pleases everyone. Even towards the very end of the process we were getting completely conflicting reports from "not user-friendly, needs a complete re-design" to "love it, very easy to use, loads of information, good job!". On the plus side, by the later stages we were getting a lot more of the latter and very few of the former. The search engine on the website does not work very well yet, though we hope it will in time; this is one reason I have itemised the contents in this blog post.

Ultimately, the framework was created by, with and for fallible humans with differing views. Therefore, it is bound to be imperfect. Even so, I feel proud of what we have created. All of these resources are freely available and will continue to be added to and updated for the foreseeable future. I hope you find them useful.

Dr Helen Kara is an independent researcher and scholar who is the author of several research methods and ethics books, including Research Ethics in the Real World: Euro-Western and Indigenous Perspectives.