What it’s like to attend a Research Ethics Panel …. A PGR’s account

Undertaking Research – Facing the BU Ethics Panel

By Orlanda Harvey

When you start your PhD journey, one of the first hurdles that you face is gaining Ethical Approval for your study. This can be a very daunting concept at the beginning, as it is often a complete unknown, or it was for me, as this was the first time I had to go through the process. Looking back now; from the very comfortable vantage point of having achieved my doctorate, it is easy to forget the anxiety and mystique surrounding this process. Questions such as: What happens if I do not get approval? dominated my thoughts. I was one of the lucky ones, for although I was seeking approval to investigate people’s experiences of using substances (In this case Anabolic Androgenic Steroids) which would mean I would have to face the BU panel, I did not need NHS ethical approval. Sitting in an office (the joy of life pre-Covid) alongside peers who were facing that experience made me very thankful, for small mercies, as although the BU process feels as if it takes a long time comparatively, with hindsight it is efficient. This, however, does not mean to say that I did not experience a few bumps in the road.

The key to success for me was advice from my Supervisory Team to ensure that I took time to get all my ducks in a row prior to submission and to take the time to prepare all my information sheets and paperwork. This was valuable as there were no changes required to my initial submission, and it went straight through to the panel. I had also looked at the panel meeting deadlines so that I could plan for my submission date and sought advice from the Research Development and Support (Governance) Team to clarify a few points. Going through the online documentation felt a little bureaucratic and at times repetitive but it was very straightforward and easy to use. It certainly made the write up of the ethics and methodology element chapters of the Thesis easier; as one of my supervisors is prone to say, no writing, when it relates to your study, is ever wasted (thank you Edwin).

The panel meeting itself was an interesting experience, for although my supervisor was there to support me (thank you Margarete) it was very clear that the focus was on me and my plans for the research, so all the questions were directed my way. At first, I was apprehensive but actually the experience turned out to be quite enjoyable. After all, at that point I was incredibly enthusiastic about my project and these people wanted me to talk about it! I later learnt to treasure such moments. The questions they asked came from a place of curiosity, and it was not long into the meeting before I realised that they were interested in supporting the research and were ensuring that I had considered key ethical points. If I am totally honest there was only one question that I found a little left field, but you are never going to agree with everything.

It was not all plain sailing, I did pass the panel but still had the email with, a few minor amendments needed. However, these were easily resolved, added clarity to the participant information sheets and could be covered by just replying with the amendments to the panel chair. Overall, the whole experience was beneficial to both my development as a researcher, and my understanding of the ethics challenges.  The positive comments from the panel also proved to be a bolster to my confidence at that early stage in my PhD Journey.

A final unexpected outcome was that, as a result of going through the checklist I had to consider if my population was vulnerable, as people who use illicit drugs are quite often are given this label as a de-facto result of their drug use. This was interesting as although they were using drugs that although not illegal, they do fall into a grey area of the law and was something that we discussed at Panel. This made me think more deeply about the population as a whole, and as a result ended up in me writing a short paper, which was published on the ethics of using AAS and the perceived vulnerability of this group: ‘Shades of Grey’: The Ethics of Social Work Practice in Relation to Un-prescribed Anabolic Androgenic Steroid Use,  which, brings me back to Edwin’s sage advice: nothing you write should ever be wasted 🙂