How to manoeuvre the USyd human ethics process

Should you choose to study real humans, you will first need to apply for human research ethics approval.

For the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed undergrad entering their final semester of coursework, Honours may just be around the corner. But buyer beware! Should you choose to study real humans, you will first need to apply for human research ethics approval. Regardless of whether you feel your research is ethically questionable or not, if your study involves talking to or surveying people, observing people, using human biological data, or accessing personal data, you will need to receive ethics approval prior to starting this aspect of your research.

While seemingly needless in some cases, the human research ethics approval process is critical. This process protects research participants from a variety of ethical issues and can hold the researcher to account. The ethics office also acts as a point of contact between research participants and the University. This means participants can voice their concerns about research without feeling coerced or judged by you, the researcher.

Unfortunately, the process of receiving ethics approval is a difficult one, especially for Honours students with but a year for their project and no prior experience. If you have completed any research in your coursework, your lecturer completed this process for you. This article hopes to explain what you should know about the Sydney University Human Ethics Office from my own experience.

  1. The process takes a very long time.

The first thing you will need to do is request access to IRMA, the technology system used by the University to submit and review ethics applications. The process itself can take a few days and it is important to remember that IRMA can only be accessed on campus or by using the University’s fiddly VPN. Once you receive access to IRMA you must complete a questionnaire with hundreds of questions. Some require single word answers and others a long response with academic referencing. 

The IRMA software itself looks like it is from the 90s (see below), can be slow, and will not necessarily save your work. Keep a copy of everything. I learnt this the hard way when I lost hours of work after the system timed out, deleting my progress. That being said, in my experience the people at the ethics office are very helpful, so do not hesitate to contact them when you have problems.

USyd’s process is also less streamlined than other universities. We do not have separate ethics procedures depending on risk or faculty. UNSW has five different pathways for five different levels of risk ranging from negligible to “more than low risk”. UTS has one ethics procedure for human research not involving medical or clinical trials and one for medical research. Macquarie has two main ethics committees and several low risk faculty based groups. Sydney has two committees but only one questionnaire to determine ethical risks involved in your process. This means that social sciences and humanities students go through the same channels as students completing clinical trials. Be prepared to click “NO” on many questions such as:

  • Is your proposed research a clinical trial? A clinical trial is a form of research designed to find out the effects of an intervention, including a treatment or diagnostic procedure. A clinical trial can involve testing a drug, a surgical procedure, other therapeutic procedures and devices, a preventive procedure, or a diagnostic device or procedure.
  1. Allow plenty of time to hear back regarding your approval.

Once you’ve completed the questionnaire and supplied all your documents on IRMA, you will need to check which meeting your application will be discussed at. The ethics committee has weekly submission deadlines. Assuming they have space in their agenda, your application should be discussed two weeks after submission. Following this you may be required to wait a further 10 days for processing. However, from my experience this is not always the case. I submitted my first application on the 8th of May and did not hear back from the human ethics committee until the 8th of June. Make sure your research can proceed without interviews or surveys during this waiting period. In my Honours cohort we had people waiting even longer to hear back, with little to no communication from the Ethics Office.

  1. Understand what to do if your application gets knocked back.

It is common for most approval requests to be knocked back the first time round, even in the social sciences. 

USyd’s system involves three levels of responses to an application. The first is full approval: you are given your approval number and you can go out and start your research. The second response is clarification: the committee will give you a few things to address but the application can be approved by someone in the ethics office instead of the whole committee. Finally, there is complete rejection, requiring you to submit a wholly new application. 

Most people I know receive the second level of approval. After following the suggestions it took a further two weeks to hear back. Overall, the process took two months. 

  1. Grammar matters more than it should.

When I received my initial response I received five points of feedback relating to ethical issues and 10 relating to the grammar and syntax of my response. One of the instructions was to correct a split infinitive, a grammatical construction that is widely regarded as appropriate. While it is frustrating to have your grammar nit-picked by a committee designed to spot ethical missteps, it would be a shame to have your proposal knocked back on grammatical grounds. Read once, once more, and once more again!

Overall, the USyd human ethics process is frustrating and requires high levels of patience. Hopefully, you can learn from my experience and get through the process efficiently, without needing to violently split any infinitives.