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You don’t understand us!

Sarah Quinton, Oxford Brookes University

‘You don’t understand us or the subject!

This is a frequent cry heard by me, as a university research ethics chair, from educational researchers trying to get ethics approval for research projects.

Well yes, we do, and no, we don’t.

Yes, we do understand your good intentions and your justifications for the interesting educational research you wish to undertake. Yes, we understand that your research may be valuable, is-time constrained, and requires immediate attention from an ethics officer and/or an ethics committee.

No, sometimes we don’t understand you or the subject on which you wish to conduct research – generally because you have not written your ethics application in a manner that can be understood by a layperson. Applications are often full of educational jargon, written by insiders for insiders, not for the public, not for school governors, and certainly not for parents. Non-specialists should be able to read, understand and reflect on the proposed research. If research was only ever evaluated by same-subject specialists, think of the myopic consequences, not just for potential poor ethics practices but also for the stagnation of the subject itself.

Event details

Hot Topic Session: Qualitative Research and Ethics Committees: Differences, Disconnects and Diverging Priorities

BERA Conference 2019
Thursday, 12 September, 14:20–15:50
Room 6.210, University Place
University of Manchester

Click here to view the full Conference programme


Perhaps ethics committees should also bleat, ‘You don’t understand us!’. Educational researchers do not always appear to understand the regulatory and legal responsibilities that university and institutional ethics committees have to ensure good ethical practice. It is the committees that have to respond to queries and complaints: from parents questioning the appropriateness of asking primary school children about their preferred gender, to school governors critiquing poor grammar and punctuation on participant information sheets, to teachers in schools querying the implied pressure they feel to participate in a project which will give them yet more work to do in the classroom. Educational researchers need to understand that ethics committees will always give emphasis to the consideration of potential participants, and that this overrides the needs of both the researcher and the research.

The perceived lack of understanding between educational researchers and the research ethics policies of universities and institutions was agitated by authors such as Hammersley (2009) and Halse and Honey (2007), who positioned themselves as ‘opposing’ ethics committees and their roles. Quite frankly this helped neither the researcher nor the institutions nor society more broadly. Ethics committees or their equivalent are required at public institutions where research is undertaken. A more constructive approach has been suggested by authors such as McAreavey and Muir (2011) and Conolly and Reid (2007), who suggest working with the committees to improve dialogue, interactions and thus the likely outcomes for educational researchers.

Research ethics in educational research should not be a ‘battle’ with people aligned to opposing armies. If we are all interested in rigorous, valuable research which will both inform scholarship and develop practice then more moderate language and greater acknowledgement of the role that ethics committees play in potentially enhancing educational research is necessary. Embracing ethics committees as a ‘critical friend’ needs to be embedded within educational researcher training.



Connolly, K., & Reid, A. (2007). Ethics review for qualitative inquiry: Adopting a values-based facilitative approach. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(7), 1031–1047.

Halse, C., & Honey, A. (2007). Rethinking Ethics Review as Institutional Discourse. Qualitative Inquiry, 13(3), 336–352.

Hammersley, M. (2009). Against the ethicists: On the evils of ethical regulation. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 12(3), 211–225.

McAreavey, R., & Muir, J. (2011). Research ethics committees: Values and power in higher education. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 14(5), 391–405.