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Blog post Independent researchers: The challenges of accessing ethical approval

Ethical review for education research: More than a box to tick

Sarah Hamilton, Unicef UK

BERA’s Independent Researchers’ Forum’s recent meeting to discuss the challenge of ethical review clearly demonstrated the gap faced by researchers working outside academic institutions. Research in the UK takes place in a complex framework of interdependent processes, and universities have invested considerable resources into their ability to navigate it. Publication in peer-reviewed journals typically requires ethical review by a recognised committee, as laid out in the guidance published by Committee on Publication Ethics to which most journals adhere (COPE, 1999; Elsevier, 2019), access to which is typically through universities. Without access to ethical review, routes to academic publication are often closed off.

‘Preventing the publication of good quality research is itself an ethical concern.’

Preventing the publication of good quality research is itself an ethical concern (Long & Fallon, 2007). Participants give up their time and their data for research which, they hope, will benefit someone. One important route to impact (though not the only one) is for research findings to form part of the body of knowledge accessible to the wider research community through recognised journals. Publication is also important for researchers’ careers and, perhaps most importantly, to exposing research to independent peer review. Peer review not only provides a critical assessment of the scientific quality of a research article, but also an opportunity to identify unethical practices in research, including fraud, plagiarism and misconduct, maintaining what COPE refers to as ‘the integrity of the scholarly record’ (COPE, 2017).

However, publication is not the only reason to revisit the challenge of ethical review for independent researchers. Doing ethical research is not a hurdle to be overcome. It is about more than demonstrating that all the relevant boxes have been ticked. Doing ethical research is an imperative because it protects the people we claim to want to benefit through our work (Resnik, 2011).

So the question is, does ethical review help to ensure that research is ethical?

As anyone who has engaged with NHS research ethics committees can attest, ethical review can be burdensome and frustrating. It can require researchers to spend days or weeks considering the minutiae of how they will work and their responses to unlikely hypothetical scenarios. They may have to argue their corner against people who do not know much about their area of research or the participants they are working with. Research can be delayed or even prevented by research ethics committees.

But ultimately, that’s the point, as argued by Sarah Quinton (2019) in a recent BERA Blog post.

Ethical guidelines like the ones that BERA have produced (BERA, 2018) are invaluable, but it’s the time spent thinking about and responding to the probing of ethical concerns that makes research better. Ethical research takes place through the skills and considerations of researchers, the large and small decisions made and the principles that guide their work (Sachs, 2007). Ethical practice is ensured through constant awareness of our own approach as researchers (Guillemin & Gillam, 2004) and, like all ways of working, is shaped by the advice and guidance we get from others (Gray & Jordan, 2012; Ferguson et al., 2007). Researchers working alone have an even greater need for review precisely because they are not surrounded by other researchers who can give guidance or ask probing questions.

In the absence of a system of ethical review, independent researchers should seek out this kind of review themselves. Look for colleagues who will be critical and put time aside to consider the minutiae of ethical practice. Review ethical processes throughout, and discuss ethics and safeguarding decisions with other researchers wherever possible. And, let us work with publishers to help them publish quality, ethical research wherever it takes place.


British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2018). Ethical guidelines for educational research (4th ed.). London. Retrieved from

Committee on Publication Ethics [COPE] (2017). Ethical guidelines for peer reviewers. Retrieved from

Committee on Publication Ethics [COPE] (1999). Guidelines on good publication practice. retrieved from

Elsevier (2019). Ethics in Research & Publication. Retrieved from

Ferguson, K., Masur, S., Olson, L., Ramirez, J., Robyn, E., & Schmaling, K. (2007). Enhancing the culture of research ethics on university campuses. Journal of Academic Ethics, 5(2–4), 189–198.

Gray, P. W., & Jordan, S. R. (2012). Supervisors and academic integrity: Supervisors as exemplars and mentors. Journal of Academic Ethics, 10(4), 299-311.

Guillemin, M., & Gillam, L. (2004). Ethics, reflexivity, and ‘ethically important moments’ in research. Qualitative inquiry, 10(2), 261–280.

Long, T., & Fallon, D. (2007). Ethics approval, guarantees of quality and the meddlesome editor. Journal of Clinical Nursing, 16(8), 1398–1404.

Quinton, S. (2019, September 3). You don’t understand us! [blog post]. Retrieved from

Resnik, D. B. (2011). What is ethics in research and why is it important. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, 1(10), 49–70.

Sachs, J. (2007). Foreword: In search of better times. In Campbell, A., & Groundwater-Smith, S. (Eds.), An ethical approach to practitioner research: Dealing with issues and dilemmas in action research. Abingdon: Routledge. Retrieved from