Ethics Applications – Human Research




If you are studying at a university in Australia and proposing to do research with human subjects- then inevitably you will have to complete a Ethics Application. This isn’t just for medical research but anything that involves humans – anthropology, sociology, law, health – there is no way to get around this in Australia and you should embrace the Ethics process as a chance to think through some practicalities of actually doing your research.

Your Ethics application will be a prescribed form from the University that then goes to a Ethics Review Committee (or Board) that considers your application- each uni differs a little in the exact content of the form and the make up of the Committee, but usually there are a range of people both internal and external to your uni on the review board. Many ethics applications are now completed online but when I did mine in 2010 – I was required to submit 17 printed copies- including every annex (one for each member of the review committee and some for the uni). I could literally not carry them all myself and needed help to deliver them.

On a side note, I was interviewed for a PhD research project by a student from a prominent London University a few years ago and I asked her if there was a ‘Research Information’ sheet or disclosure that I should sign but nope- nothing. I asked her if she’d been through a research ethics process and what about if I wanted to withdraw from the research or had concerns about how my ‘data’ was being used – she said she didn’t have any under any ethics process and I could just contact her directly if I had concerns- I think this is pretty dodgy and I’ve got to say that particular University dropped in my levels of trust/esteem.

So- how to embrace the Ethics process as something that will actually help you with your research. There are many philosophical stances to be made in completing your ethics application and the biggest mistakes I’ve seen other people do are

(a) copy someone else’s ethics application cause it seems easier/quicker (with a few tweeks of course) and/or
(b) assume that the reviewers know and trust you and your research (fail to explain yourself).


(c) get caught up thinking its actually about ethics rather than a ‘risk control’ exercise

If you follow any of these paths, ultimately you are letting yourself down because its highly likely that the Ethics committee will ask for more reviews (damn: can’t start that research till Ethics approved) and/or you’ll be un-prepared for your field work & analysis cause you didn’t spend any time thinking through the steps.

So – here’s some examples of what I’m talking about:

Example 1: 

Q: Indicate whether the information that will be used/collected from the participant will
be: (a) Non-identifiable (b) Re-identifiable (c) Individually Identifiable

This is a question that I think many people chose response (a) by default cause they assume that the ethics committee considers ‘good’ research as non-identifiable – its all about protecting the person’s privacy right?

Well, it’s not so simple [I’ve blogged on this elsewhere] For starters, even if you attempt to ‘de-identify’ your participants, in some research, that’s just not going to be possible and/or it will be obvious to at least some people who the participant is (e.g. female head of major Australia Bank – there are only 4 big banks and only one female CEO- in fact, just google “female ceo australian bank” and her name will appear) – so you’d have to start writing up your data in some really abstract ways to get around making this participant ‘non-identifiable’. This applies equally in small communities- you might think that no-one will know/care about “Participant A” centrelink-dependent mother with gambling problem- but it could be totally obvious to other community members who you are talking about. So that’s one issue. Next issue is- how do you think about your data and participants? Does the ‘data’ exist out there in the real world or is the data created? See Pat Thomson for more on this. If you believe that data is ‘created’ – then your participants are co-creators and co-owners of that data – “de-identifying” them is like taking all the glory for yourself! It also ‘agrues away’ the agency of the participants (a) choosing to participate and (b) choosing what and how they disclose certain things to you .
This is just the tip of the ice-burg…the issues around data generation, privacy and identifiable participants is complex- but my point is- don’t chose Option A by default. Make a considered choice and justify why this is the best option for your research.

Example 2: Not explaining your-self

Q: Will an interpreter be required? 

I had a colleague who just simply responded “no” when undertaking research in another country – without explaining that he was a native speaker. His Ethics Application was returned it cost him about 4 weeks time waiting for the approval. This particular question bugs me a bit because interpretation and translation are different (but treated the same in many Ethics applications) and some universities have fairly strict guidelines about requiring the use of qualified translators/interpreters (which are costly). That’s a bit off topic. My point is – the Ethics committee doesn’t know you – so spell everything out for them- if you’ve got contacts, speak other languages, have established relationships with your participants –  make sure you’ve included everything so that the Ethics Committee finds it easy to pass your application.

Example 3: Ethics vs Risk

I think many University Ethics Application processes are ultimately about managing risk associated with conducting your research, rather than philosophical questions about the ethics of conducting research. It seems that they really want to know that you are managing potential risk, have thought through how you might address/deal with ‘risky’ situations and ultimately protect the good-name and reputation of your university.  I found a good way to address some of the potential risks was to provide a “Risk Matrix”  – that is – the potential impact of a risk vs the likelihood of it actually occurring – with an extra column for mitigation.

In summary, going through the process of the Ethics Application can assist you with planning your research well and should be treated as an important step rather than a tick-the-box.


There is  currently a survey being conducted on the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (Australia specific) – if you’d like to participate following the link: (I think its active till Feb 2014)


About Sarina Kilham

I'm a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Trained as a social scientist and with a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture, I'm interested in farmer's experiences of growing feedstock for biodiesel production. My research has focused on biodiesel production in Brazil and Timor-Leste. Also on Twitter @sarinakilham and blogging at
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