Tag Archives: culture

Getting research ethics approval


Teaching research ethics is almost impossible. Teaching someone about ethics is a different matter, but unless a person actually understands why ethical standards are essential, then everything else is fruitless. It is relatively straightforward to present examples of good ethical practice (and what happens when this practice is ignored) but this simply underpins the implementation of the ethical standards, not the need for them. Fortunately, there are lots of detailed guidelines and professional codes describing the expectations of ethical behaviour, many of them readily available on the web. I say “lots” because the ethical standards vary widely in content and detail, dependent on the subject discipline, the research methods employed, the level of study, and several other factors. This might sound vague, but think about it. There will be a different level of scrutiny required if a researcher seeks access to the confidential medical files of patient, rather than simply asking patients to respond to a few verbal questions. There will be different standards again if the researcher plans to work with animals, or children, or vulnerable adults with diminished responsibility. There is also an ethical code for internet-mediated research, although this is new, variable, and highly contextual, so it is an evolving set of guidelines. Despite these differences, the purpose of research ethics is the same in each case – namely to prevent causing harm to the participants, to preserve their dignity (for example their right to anonymity) and to enable them to withdraw from the study without any undue pressure or penalty.

For these reasons, there is a crucial stage between deciding on what research methods are to be adopted for a study, and the commencement of data collection. This crucial stage is where the researcher submits the details of the design, methodology, and any issues relating to the collection and storage of data, for approval by the university ethics committee. Only after ethical clearance has been approved can the student begin to collect data. Failure to obtain approval before data is collected may result in the university deciding that this data is not admissible for inclusion in the study. If there have been any severe breaches of ethical responsibility, the study may be terminated or the student de-registered. For this reason, the ethical approval of a student research project is a gate-keeper stage of every study.

Fortunately, most research projects have fairly straightforward ethical requirements which are easily satisfied in full. A lot of the ethical safeguards might be regarded as “simply common sense” (and so they are) but you might be surprised by the number of times people say “Oh, there are no ethical issues with my research!” This is almost certainly wrong. Even the issue of whether the researcher with half-formed ideas should be “wasting” the time of an interviewee who almost certainly has something better, perhaps crucial, to do, is an ethical issue. For these reasons, seeking ethical approval for research should be a serious matter, but not something to fret unduly about, if the researcher has properly thought through the research design. Once the ethical approval has been obtained, the researcher is able to jump out of the starting blocks to engage with data collection, and this is where the real fun part starts.


The Research Supervisor

ScaffoldIn the course of a normal year, I frequently help to organise an introductory training sessions for new research students and for lecturers who are just starting out to supervise research students for a PhD. Naturally, one of the issues that we address is to consider what makes a good supervisor. This is both very simple and quite intangible. The simple version is that the good supervisor guides, advises, and supports the research student through the entire process – from the first tentative steps, to the final success at the viva and subsequent graduation. This seems rather obvious, and it is fair to ask for a more detailed breakdown of the roles of a research supervisor, and this is where it gets a bit more complex. Firstly, there are two main roles for a supervisor – the Director of Studies, and the Second (or Third) supervisor. Let’s deal with the main supervisor first.

The Director of Studies (or lead supervisor) is normally the most senior of the supervisors, though this is not always the case. As the main supervisor, s/he will be responsible for the week-by-week guidance of the research student, although the frequency and extent of contact-time will vary widely for different students and subject areas. This supervisor will be the main link between the student and university administration, possibly a Graduate School or similar management section. There will be regular progress monitoring reports to complete (perhaps six-monthly), and these will normally be based upon regular formal meetings with the student to discuss the progress of the research. In addition, there will probably be lots of intervening meetings, of both short and long duration, as the supervisor responds to questions from the student, suggest tasks to perform, or recommends reading to enhance some area of knowledge that the student might benefit from. Some of these meetings might be quick, ad hoc conversations in the corridor or the café, while others will be formal reviews between the student and the whole supervisory team.

Normally the only professional requirements are that a) the supervisor has a PhD already; b) that they have some area of expertise in the subject area that they are proposing to supervise; and c) that they are attached to an academic institution. Frequently, the main supervisor is required by the university to have successfully supervised at least two PhD students to completion, usually undertaken in the more junior position of Second or Third supervisor, but this is not always the case. In certain circumstances, a non-academic expert may also be appointed as an Advisor, rather than a Supervisor, if this person has some relevant specialist skills or knowledge, for instance an important industrial contact.

Like all walks of life, some Directors of Study are more diligent than others, and have greater or lesser social skills and leadership qualities, but basically they all have a vested interest in assisting the student to complete their PhD. Usually the supervisors share a common enthusiasm for the research topic with the student, and helps to co-create the voyage of discovery. Even with the best supervisor, it would be foolish to expect them to know the answer to everything, but hopefully their level of experience should be able to suggest a logical way to discover these answers. I like to give detailed (line by line) feedback on the first pieces of academic writing from the student, so that some guidance on the style of academic writing, the level of detail, and the quality of the text can be established, but some supervisors may take a less hands-on approach. My role is to help the student to understand and deal with the academic challenge that they face during the research project, but it is to guide and offer advice on how they might tackle these challenges, to provide some scaffolding, not to do the work for them.

Faculty Conference

At the end of the week, we had a couple of days for a faculty conference. Since the UHI activities are scattered around 13 academic partners (colleges and research centres) across a huge area of northern Scotland, we don’t get together face-to-face very often. This was a great event. In this image, our Acting Principal is giving us his vision of the immediate future of the university – unlike a lot of “corporate speak” he made a lot of sense. I particularly liked his encouragement to ‘think the unthinkable’ and embrace the new challenges of digital, networked education. In many ways the UHI is at the forefront of good practice – not just good theory, but actually walking the talk – but the world is not standing still. We need to seriously think how we can improve the consistency and the innovation in what we do – and to realise that standing still is not an option. When we embrace the future, we need to make sure that we influence the direction of travel, not get dragged along by the current. Fortunately there are a few good people who don’t mind sticking their head above the parapet and just get on with things. There were some really good conversations at this conference – now we just need to put some of the better ideas into practice.

Social learning

Social learning

I was sent an interesting link from a colleague recently https://apps.uow.edu.au/ which is a store of apps created at the University of Wollongong, Australia. It seems a very good idea to me. When discussing it with colleagues I came upon an interesting disagreement (or “contested issue” as academics like to call it!). Most people I spoke to were very much in favour of being able to use social software with their students – especially students of education and/or technology. Perhaps not for direct teaching, but for support, social back-up, and certainly for teaching about the subject itself. It is accepted that it is not good practice to demand that students submit assessments through third-party software providers, but surely the best way of teaching about social networking in education is to allowed controlled use of social software in courses? There should be a system to allow students to sign up at the start of the course that they realise the conditions of use of Facebook, Twitter, and so on. It could even be accepted that students who hadstrong objections could opt out of using these tools (but that would be a bit like opting out of reading the core texts!) Surely, however, by the simple fact that a student is studying the subject (and may already be using these technologies in their personal life) it would seem reasonable that the way to learn best practice , and to guard against unwitting bad practice, is to study the media systematically. I think that objections to this are just another example of education lagging behind the technology practices of society as a whole (and it is interesting that the staff with the most vigorous objections to the use of social media are not tutors, but some ‘support’ staff). It would be interesting to learn about what other universities are doing in this area.

Stereotypes and cliches

Stereotypes and cliches

Over the last couple of days I read “The Lewis Man” by Peter May. If you haven’t read it yet, don’t bother. It is marginally better than his first book in the trilogy, but so full of minor errors, one-dimensional characters, and annoying cliches that it is distracting! It got me thinking (again) about how the Highlands and Islands are portrayed in popular (?) fiction. It appears to be acceptable, fashionable even, to denigrate rural places and rural cultures as brooding, wind-swept, backwards (add your own favourite prejudice) while cities are, by default, sparkling, exciting, etc etc. It seems to me that the UHI is well-placed to lead a counter-position that lays an emphasis on the positive sides of our communities – the beauties, the freshness, the contemplative, the innovative, and the delight in the community of good people. I finished work for the year today, and 2014 promises to be roller-coaster ride of wonderful new challenges, including how we make this distributed, high-tech university step up to make its mark.