Research approvals iceberg: How a 'low-key' study in England needed 89 professionals to approve it and how we can do better

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Background: The red tape and delays around research ethics and governance approvals frequently frustrate researchers yet, as the lesser of two evils, are largely accepted as unavoidable. Here we quantify aspects of the research ethics and governance approvals for one interview- and questionnaire-based study conducted in England which used the National Health Service (NHS) procedures and the electronic Integrated Research Application System (IRAS). We demonstrate the enormous impact of existing approvals processes on costs of studies, including opportunity costs to focus on the substantive research, and suggest directions for radical system change. Main text: We have recorded 491 exchanges with 89 individuals involved in research ethics and governance approvals, generating 193 pages of email text excluding attachments. These are conservative estimates (e.g. only records of the research associate were used). The exchanges were conducted outside IRAS, expected to be the platform where all necessary documents are provided and questions addressed. Importantly, the figures exclude the actual work of preparing the ethics documentation (such as the ethics application, information sheets and consent forms). We propose six areas of work to enable system change: 1. Support the development of a broad range of customised research ethics and governance templates to complement generic, typically clinical trials orientated, ones; 2. Develop more sophisticated and flexible frameworks for study classification; 3. Link with associated processes for assessment, feedback, monitoring and reporting, such as ones involving funders and patient and public involvement groups; 4. Invest in a new generation IT infrastructure; 5. Enhance system capacity through increasing online reviewer participation and training; and 6. Encourage researchers to quantify the approvals processes for their studies. Conclusion: Ethics and governance approvals are burdensome for historical reasons and not because of the nature of the task. There are many opportunities to improve their efficiency and analytic depth in an age of innovation, increased connectivity and distributed working. If we continue to work under current systems, we are perpetuating, paradoxically, an unethical system of research approvals by virtue of its wastefulness and impoverished ethical debate.




Petrova, M., & Barclay, S. (2019). Research approvals iceberg: How a “low-key” study in England needed 89 professionals to approve it and how we can do better. BMC Medical Ethics, 20(1).

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