Additional guidelines for applying for ethics clearance for a study or experiment

The purpose of the ethics clearance process is to provide outside guidance to researchers on ethical considerations in their projects. Researchers must ensure that any study using human subjects does not violate the rights of the subjects or endanger them or their livelihoods in any way.  For example, if a study publishes data which clearly reveals the identity of individuals, this information may be used by those in authority to take disciplinary action against the participant. However, by following a sensible anonymization procedure, this issue can be mitigated or eliminated.

This document answers some frequently asked questions about the application for ethics clearance. Some of these guidelines repeat what is given in the instructions; this document highlights areas where sometimes those instructions are missed. You are encouraged to read all instructions carefully, and to include all information requested.

1)      All students undertaking a study involving human subjects must complete apply for ethics clearance.

2)      If you plan to use UCT students as part of your study, you need to apply for ethics clearance first. One you have ethics clearance you must complete the DSA100 form in order to be granted access to the relevant students group at UCT. The form contains all the relevant contact details. Please refer to Research Support Hub Overview (https://uct.ac.za/research-support-hub/integrity/accessing-uct-staff-or-students-research-population) for more details on working with UCT staff or students.

3)      Only students from the Departments of Computer Science or Environmental and Geographical Sciences (EGS) are permitted to apply for expedited clearance. Applications requesting expedited clearance may be re-directed to full committee review if necessary.

4)      In all cases you need to provide enough detail in your proposal application to convince the committee that there are no ethical issues or that you can address these satisfactorily. Details required include the population (who, how many) you will use for your study, how they will be recruited, activities they will undertake as part of your research, compensation to be given to participants, if any, and how you will provide feedback on your research to participants in a way that is easily accessible to them.

5)      Please note the default positions on anonymity of applicants and their rights (such as the right to withdraw from the study, or to request that their data us not used). Make sure to address these issues in the relevant section of the form, as well as the letter sent to each participant in your study. If you choose to deviate from these positions, please provide a clear motivation with appropriate citations. You should take a position that is appropriate for your participants rather than defaulting to what seems to be easiest for your application.

6)      Please pay attention to all parts of the application and justify your choices. Empty forms look unprofessional and suggest the applicant has not read through all the required information.

7)      Note the importance of the informed consent and confidentiality parts of the application: if these are not carefully motivated, the application is likely to be sent back for editing.

8)      You must submit your letter of informed consent. The statement(s) of informed consent should be submitted as an attachment to your application. Written consent and oral scripts should include at minimum 1) details of the researcher and the research objective, 2) selection criteria and procedures for the participant and expected risks and benefits, 3) declaration of confidentiality, 4) voluntary nature of participation, and 5) contact for the REC (sci-rec@uct.ac.za).

a.      Written Consent: If you are doing in-person activities, you should edit the template informed consent (informed voluntary consent) attached to the end of the research ethics application form in order to tailor it to your study. All the highlighted issues (such as anonymity and right to withdraw) must be edited appropriately. You must also include the correct contact details at the top of the document and specify the department.  Make sure to remove or replace everything marked in [square brackets] on the form, and to delete recording permission lines that do not apply to your research. You are not required to use this template – you should use wording and language that is appropriate for your participants.  However, the template does provide examples of some of the information that is required for informed consent.

b.      Web Surveys: If you are doing a web survey, the consent form should appear as the first page of your survey, with an “I agree” that would allow them to proceed with the survey. Please note that internationally hosted services like SurveyMonkey and Google Forms may not be compliant with POPI Act restrictions on sharing personal information across borders. You are encouraged to use the open-source Lime Survey platform hosted by UCT (https://limesurvey.uct.ac.za/).  Make sure that your participants are aware of who will have access to their personal information as part of the informed consent, and preferably do not collect it if you do not need it. For more information on POPIA, please see ASSAF POPIA Code of Conduct for Researchers.

c.       Oral Consent: In many cases, oral consent is more appropriate – please provide your script for oral consent (make sure to introduce yourself and your research in the script) at the end of your application in lieu of an informed consent form. This should be translated into languages in which your participants are comfortable and conversant.

d.      Digital Consent: In some cases, it might make sense to collect written or oral consent via WhatsApp, email, or some other communication channel. Please ensure that you protect your participants’ privacy in this case and keep a record of this consent (e.g. screenshots and a log of consent).

9)      Any other ethical issues which may arise must be highlighted in the application.

10)  Please allow three working weeks for the application to be processed. If edits are requested, do these promptly and resubmit the application as instructed.

If you follow the guidelines listed above, your application should be processed swiftly. For any questions about the process, please contact the FSREC servicing officer at sci-rec@uct.ac.za.

Resubmissions If you have been asked to revise and resubmit your application, you will need to log into eRA and modify it there.

Research with Third-Party Data (about people)

We frequently have students looking at third-party data sets without identifying data. The official line is that if you have permission from the steward of the data, then you don't need faculty clearance to do the research. In some cases, the data steward may require an ethics clearance certificate, in which case you should complete the pre-screening questionnaire. The PSQ will generate a letter stating exemption from clearance or recommend that you submit a full application.  Your application should clearly indicate the data to be used and what permissions have been sought by the data steward for use of the data.

At the same time, not needing faculty clearance doesn't mean that there are no ethical considerations attached to the research. Supervisors should make sure researchers understand wider implications around third-party data, and potential ethical issues that can arise even with the use of anonymized data. This includes but is not limited to:

  • Issues around how the data was gathered in the first place - were the users informed that their data was being collected, and might be used for research purposes? Even if informed, were they aware of implications? An example of this is the case of Henrietta Lacks and the use of her cells for genomics research - https://onlineethics.org/cases/case-hela-cells.

  • Potential for group harm - can findings affect a group of people even if the data itself is anonymized at the individual level? Consider the case of international genomics research involving the San people - https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-319-64731-9_3  

  • Potential for identification of individuals based on aggregate data (i.e. name and ID removed, but you can still identify someone based on a search history).

  • Is the anonymized data non-anonymous publicly? If so, there's a risk of identification (i.e. Twitter), and it may be required to paraphrase or alter 'quotes' to reduce this risk. Of course, any alteration of quotes should be acknowledged in the write-up.

  • One should also always be aware of selection bias and how that will affect the results.

Some resources:

·       Leanne Townsend and Claire Wallace. Social Media Research: A Guide to Ethics. University of Aberdeen. https://www.bolton.ac.uk/assets/Uploads/Social-media-ethics-study-Aberdeen-2018.pdf

·       Townsend, L. and Wallace, C. (2017), "The Ethics of Using Social Media Data in Research: A New Framework", Woodfield, K. (Ed.) The Ethics of Online Research (Advances in Research Ethics and Integrity, Vol. 2), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 189-207. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2398-601820180000002008

·       Gemma Stevens, Victoria L. O'Donnell & Lynn Williams (2015) Public domain or private data? Developing an ethical approach to social media research in an inter-disciplinary project, Educational Research and Evaluation, 21:2, 154-167, DOI: 10.1080/13803611.2015.1024010

POPI Act

If you are collecting or otherwise processing personal information, please ensure that you are in compliance with the POPI Act. Any personally identifiable data (e.g. names, id numbers, addresses) should be kept in an encrypted file or a locked cabinet and separated from your data. You must request consent to collect and use this data.  Please note also specific rules about sharing of personal data internationally, which includes use of cloud services where data is hosted outside of South Africa.

For more information, please see the ASSAF POPIA Code of Conduct for Researchers.

 

Last updated 19 January 2024