'I just need to get through ethics’: are Research Ethics Committees working? A comparative study between the UK and Spain

Rachel Forrester-Jones, Nicole Palmer, J.D. Izquierdo

Research output: Contribution to conferenceAbstractpeer-review


Bacground: On account of the increasing scrutiny which funding bodies, including research councils, are applying to ethical practices within research, funding for UK Universities is becoming contingent on demonstrating sound practice (see Concordat to Support Research Integrity, Universities UK 2012). The resulting pressures present a major challenge, particularly to those researching in sensitive research environments, such as those researching vulnerable groups, where there is increasing recourse to public enquiry and litigation. There is however, often a lack of understanding, and increasing anxiety, about the legal context in which this research must be conducted in order to satisfy exacting ethical requirements (e.g. Mental Capacity Act 2015). This issue is gaining importance internationally also. In the UK, research ethics review was initially undertaken by independent Research Ethics Committees (RECs) sitting within hospital trusts; with multisite research having to pass several RECs. Local Research Ethics Committees (LRECs) (via the DH) were followed by multicentre RECs (MRECs) in the late 90s. The NHS National Research Ethics Service (NRES) launched in 2007 provided a UK-wide framework for ethical review of research involving human participants attached to the NHS including people who lack capacity to consent, and the Social Care Research Ethics Committee, (SCREC) was set up in 2009, to address gaps in provision for research involving human participants attached to social care bodies. Latterly, The Health Research Authority, which became a non-departmental public body in 2015 under the Care Act 2014; has taken formal responsibility for ethical and governance review of research in the NHS and adult social care. The Social Care REC transferred to the HRA on 1st April 2015. UK Universities also have their own central and departmental ethics committees for all other research.In Spain, localised health RECs remain. University ethics committees are sporadic with little centralisation and some Universities do not have ethics committees for human participants.
Aim: This paper debates whether centralised ethical review results in sound ethical research in practice. We discuss ethics committee membership and question whether the process has led to researchers adopting ways to simply ‘get through the ethics committee’ without adequate reflection of ethical principles. Firstly, we reflect on the history of ethics committees and associated policies. In the light of a growing plethora of ethical codes and new policies, we then outline European cases of research misconduct scandals including the Diederik Stapel report in the Netherlands (https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn21118-psychologist-admits-faking-data-in-dozens-of-studies/). The discussion then moves to growing cases of questionable research practices, (John et al., 2012; Fanelli 2009; Martinson et al. 2005) exacerbated by the pressures researchers face from issues such as the ‘publish or perish’ perception (likely to intensify as the Research Excellence Framework 2020/21 draws nearer), and high levels of competition for jobs and funding (Nuffield 2014; Davis et al., 2007). We demonstrate how unethical research practices have the potential to skew the research record over time (J. Lehrer, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/12/13/the-truth-wears-off), and erode public trust in the enterprise of research. Proven cases of research misconduct can irreparably damage the reputation of a university, lead to a loss of funding, and embarrassing retractions in journals, not to mention ruining the careers of any implicated academics (see http://retractionwatch.com/). Drawing from the experience of two ethics committees – one in the UK and one in Spain we consider how difficult it is for RECs to monitor sound ethical practice. Against this background, we then turn to how teaching of ethical values in research has become important to all students, especially those studying for vocational/professional courses such as social work. Mindful of this need, universities in countries such as the US, Australia and India have made teaching of ethics a compulsory subject at UG level (Mishra & Kumar, 2011). The UK and Spain has yet to follow this lead. Nevertheless, the UK Green Paper: Fulfilling Our Potential (Nov 2015) Cm 9141 proposes a Teaching Excellence Framework aimed at driving up the standard of teaching. Within this new landscape, quality of learning experiences and outcomes has become more significant; the government declaring that teaching cannot remain the ‘second cousin’ of research. 
Conclusion:The paper ends with a call for more high quality research into research ethics that spans the academic and the applied spheres, and ethics committees in particular as well as good quality teaching of research ethics and integrity to help students to develop integrity and accountability for future personal and professional success and to equip the next generation of academics and other professionals to produce and confidently demonstrate ethically sound research and practice.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jul 2016
EventSocial Policy Association Conference - 2016 : Belfast - Belfast Metropolitan College, Titanic Quarter, Belfast, Belfast, UK United Kingdom
Duration: 4 Jul 20166 Jul 2016


ConferenceSocial Policy Association Conference - 2016
Country/TerritoryUK United Kingdom
Internet address


  • Research Ethics


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