Themes that emerged from interview transcripts are presented in order of their frequency of occurrence.
The majority of respondents who explained factors that would prompt them to avoid pursuing a project dependent on HREC approval cited time as a contributing factor. Three coursework Master’s students, for example, commented:
Participant 5 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – Yes, absolutely. I think so because firstly because of anxiety that I won’t get approval from the university and then secondly that I won’t receive the approval in time, that’s also another consideration.
Participant 8 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – There are a lot of steps to follow and we need to wait for our ethics to be approved before we can commence our study . . . If I had a shorter time then I might avoid research that requires ethics approval.
Participant 11 (Coursework Master’s, China) – I would have included more schools as my research cohort but then I would have had more rounds of ethics approval amendments, I was concerned that I could not finish in time.
One RHD student even changed their research design in order to get HREC approval more quickly:
Participant 6 (RHD, New Zealand) – I’ve been dealing with an external health boards ethics process too so once I got the ethics from the external place, it has actually been easier to get through the university’s ethics board process. But actually, I have had to change the ways that I have approached things just to make it easier to get through.
Participants within our study admitted that they had been told before they started their research how long it would take to receive ethics approval. Nevertheless, some participants misinterpreted this information as an exaggeration meant to highlight that it would be a lengthy process. As a result, they were underprepared when the advice turned out to be accurate.
If it were possible to direct support or instruction towards one or more aspects affecting candidate ability to successfully navigate these forms without having to revise and resubmit, we might increase the possibility that RHD students can start data collection earlier in their candidature. This, in turn, might improve the likelihood that international students complete their studies within the period covered by scholarships and visas. Given full-time doctoral students in Australia are expected by their universities to complete within four years, and that Australian Government research training funding is normally only available for up to four years (Australian Government Department of Education, Skills & Employment, 2020), “timely completion is imperative” (Mason et al., 2020, p. 246).
The Australian Code for the Responsible Conduct of Research (National Health & Medical Research Council, 2018) places responsibility on RHD supervisors to mentor their students on responsible research conduct (Responsibility 15). The guide supporting the Code on RHD supervision is more explicit in relation to research ethics:
Supervisors are responsible for overseeing research proposals developed by those whom they supervise, including providing any necessary advice regarding steps that could be taken to maximise the likelihood that proposed research will be assessed as having academic or scientific merit and as being ethically appropriate. (National Health & Medical Research Council, 2019, p. 4)
Not surprisingly, then, the second theme most frequently mentioned by students was supervisor support. In Griebling et al.’s (2009) Cincinnati study, interaction with a supervisor was referenced across the entirety of a project: initiating the research ethics paperwork process; providing feedback throughout the drafting of paperwork; correcting misconceptions; and providing advice based on prior experience.
Seven candidates, from both the coursework Master’s and RHD cohorts, reported positive supervisor interactions in relation to completing the HREC application. One coursework Master’s student, for example, had weekly supervisor meetings at which feedback on the application was provided. Those from the RHD cohort demonstrated more independence throughout the process, with two completing their own first drafts before sending them to their supervisors for modification:
Participant 2 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – After filling in the form I would take it to my supervisor to edit and provide feedback. I did this every week.
Participant 4 (RHD, Russia) – After finishing my first draft I sent it to my supervisor and he helped me to modify some things.
Participant 6 (RHD, New Zealand) – I just followed the instructions and once I had finished it I gave it to my PhD supervisor. She tweaked it a little bit.
A source of this disparity may arise at the supervisor level. It may be unclear who is responsible for helping students write an HREC application and where the boundaries between supervisor and student responsibility lie. At many institutions, including the site where our research was conducted, doctoral candidates are required to attend workshops that provide instruction on a range of processes involved within research, including the ethics review process. However, not all students felt supported by their supervisors, and it is perhaps this kind of gap that the 2019 Guide on Supervision is seeking to address.
Within the early stages of a research career, the foundations of academic identity are seeded within peer groups. This may be particularly important within international groups of students who have developed rapport through shared experiences of studying in a new educational context. Peer influences had mixed consequences and were seen by students as both positive and negative. Some peers warned their fellow students not to undertake research that required ethics review. This should be of significant concern to Australian universities, as it threatens the ability of cohorts of international students to achieve graduate learning outcomes, distorts the research agenda pursued at graduate level and ill-equips future generations of researchers in some disciplines to undertake empirical research of value to their home countries:
Participant 9 (Coursework Master’s, Vietnam) – At the beginning when I was about to find a topic to work on for my dissertation, I was a little confused about whether I should look for a topic that would require ethics approval. This was because a lot of my friends recommended for me not to choose the one which will deal with the ethics approval. They said that it would be very tiring and time consuming and that it would be better to work with secondary sources of data.
Participant 5 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – Maybe someday I’ll see what others do and then maybe waiting will give me the confidence to try. Because one of my friends has waited 2 or 3 months to receive approval. Other people’s experiences with the process has had a big impact on me.
Some participants were asked if they would share their own insights of the approval process with future students. One student in particular thought this would be beneficial:
Participant 3 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – I think that’s why sometimes our friends that enrolled the semester after us, if they are planning to do the ethics then they will come and ask us for help, now that we have completed the process.
One respondent explained:
Participant 2 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – I must tell them that I have been through this process, but they will see that it was so long and so difficult.
These comments indicate peer influence could discourage others from undertaking research requiring research ethics review.
The type of support sought from peer groups was primarily emotional or linguistic, differing from the nature of the advice given by supervisors, which was predominantly feedback on content. However, the ability of peer networks to provide support was limited; to exchange insights, peers needed to be experiencing similar challenges with the HREC approval process and have the same language as the student seeking help. The participants did not see friends in general as a source of emotional support in completing ethics review:
Participant 2 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – I only had discussions with my friends who were also completing the ethics applications at the time. We would discuss things that we both had trouble understanding. If I spoke to a friend who was not completing the forms they would just say ‘I don’t know,’ instead of trying to help figure it out.
Participant 3 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – Maybe, also because you and that friend speak the same dialect, so it’s easier for us to say what we mean to say.
To construct a complete picture of the participants’ attitudes toward education in ethics, we asked students about gaps they had encountered in their knowledge. However, participants found it difficult to be explicit about concepts they felt they were missing—they did not know what they did not know. Some students did not interpret difficulties in engaging with ethics review as a gap in their knowledge of ethics, but rather as a lack of knowledge of the bureaucracy. As a result, they discussed the resources or support that they would have liked to be available, rather than the concepts or practices of ethical research:
Participant 2 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – We needed some information about what is actually included within the forms even if it’s not specifically the real form. It shouldn’t only be about learning what ethics is but also how to actually do that.
Participant 9 (Coursework Master’s, Vietnam) – If the school or the lecturers could calm the student down by providing examples or stories about the process which were not scary would help applicant feel more confident through the application process.
Participant 6 (RHD, New Zealand) – The first time around it’s a bit of a maze to get through how you are meant to prepare the application and what you are required to consider. The first time I actually completed an ethics application I was actually not at the university so that was probably harder, I had really no direction. So really it was just contacting the ethics committee and really hoping that the contact person was helpful.
Two students highlighted the need for examples and practice:
Participant 7 (RHD, Uganda) – I did the online course from the graduate centre. But I think that the more practical course, I actually attended it after I had submitted my forms. I think that it would have been really helpful before. I had to do quite a number of revisions.
Participant 4 (RHD, Russia) [referring to a forthcoming application] – I will find internet or uni library resources before I begin my application. I will look for examples of the paperwork for the same type of study etc. Approved forms and research papers. It’s easier to do something if you have an example or if a person has already done it and you can have it as a base or just as a base for further development.
Five students reported that the education they did receive increased their confidence or ability while completing the HREC application (albeit possibly in relation to compliance rather than ethics), typified by comments such as:
Participant 5 (Masters, Indonesia) – I think yes definitely because previously I never got that kind of knowledge before. So that is why back here I finally get new insight from this university about how to be really careful with our research about using ethics and having knowledge about how to conduct the research by having the ethics approval.
Many universities are poor at writing policies and procedures in ways that can be understood by students. Even when documents are explicitly directed to cover international students or are more likely to be relevant to students for whom English is not a first language, they may be drafted in ways that are hard for most students to comprehend. This issue and the possible value of providing translation is, of course, not limited to Australia (see Taylor and Bicak (2019) on university academic integrity policies in post-secondary institutions in the United States).
In our study, many participants expressed how language barriers affected their ability to complete HREC applications. This was particularly apparent when the interview was conducted in a language other than English. During data collection, the majority of sessions conducted with Chinese participants were conducted in Mandarin at their request. This demonstrates a preference towards using a student’s first language when engaging in complex discussions, and perhaps students would be more likely to engage with options for support provided in their first language.
Several participants expressed difficulty in comprehending and responding to ethics application forms in English, and believed that without language support it would be difficult for international students to complete a successful application. Eight Chinese Master’s students had difficulty understanding key components in the ethics application form, including ‘consent’, ‘protect the confidentiality of participants’ and ‘recruitment of participants’. It is revealing that researcher and participants switched to Mandarin in the research interview when they sought to explain why they struggled with English terms:
Participant 10 (Coursework Master’s, China) – I found it was difficult to understand some ethics concepts in Chinese context because I could not find precise comparisons.
Participant 16 (Coursework Master’s, China) – What does ‘consent’ mean in Chinese?
Researcher: ‘Consent’ means zhi qing tong yi.
Participant 16 (Coursework Master’s, China) – Is that like signing your name when you have a surgery in the hospital?
Another student highlighted cultural differences as a consideration in the process:
Participant 8 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – I think that ethics kind of complex so it can be challenging especially when considering one culture context compared to another cultures
Students also could not understand why ethics forms appeared to be asking the same question multiple times:
Participant 7 (RHD, Uganda) – I found that there is lots of repetition in the form especially around data management. This was quite confusing and frustrating because I was answering the same question more than once.
This student was uncertain whether the form actually was being repetitive or whether they simply were unable to distinguish between two different questions. Our own review of the ethics application form used at the University of Adelaide also noted repetition. Questions 3.6 (What is the participant selection and exclusion criteria?) and 3.7 (Where will participants be recruited or sourced from?) are rather similar, because the information required in 3.7 may be necessary to respond to 3.6 (for example, only teachers at a particular high school will be invited to participate). Again, there appears to be an overlap between the second half of Question 3.8 (What materials will be used to recruit participants and how will they be used?) and 3.9 (How and by whom will initial contact with participants be made?) if recruitment materials are used in the initial contact.
Prior Experience of Ethics Applications
Teaching ethics courses is highly complex due to reliance on culturally constructed notions of ethical behaviours. Education in research ethics often evades this problem by being highly instructive, focused on completing forms and identifying a single correct answer rather than building the capacity to engage in ethical thinking (Allan & Israel, 2018; von Unger, 2016). Even when courses do seek to achieve the latter, the nature of the student body may be such that the course needs to cover a wide variety of disciplines and methodologies, and much of the instruction may not appear to be relevant to any particular student.
Experiences of the education around ethics approval processes received by Master’s coursework students in Australia varied significantly:
Participant 2 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – All I learnt is that ethics is something that we need to do or complete or get approval for before we do an interview or a questionnaire. I never thought that the form would be like that.
Participant 5 (Masters, Indonesia) – I’ve known about the ethics approval previously from a course that I have taken previously, that’s why it might seem like I am avoiding the ethics stuff, like the ethical approval.
Participant 9 (Coursework Master’s, Vietnam) – Through some of my research related courses the lecturer mentioned ethics and the ethics committee. In one course there was a guest speaker that the teacher had invited to come, and she explained about the ethics forms and the committee and what we needed to do for the ethics approval.
Despite these candidates completing several of the same courses, they found the information to have different levels of relevance. Of course, students’ development of the knowledge, skills and attributes associated with ethical research could also have reflected their level of attendance, completion of additional readings or activities prior to the lesson, levels of engagement with lesson content, and the fact that the language of instruction was not their first language.
Several participants commented on how the situation in their own countries differed from Australia. In some cases, no ethics review had been required; in others, students were not expected to write the application:
Participant 4 (RHD, Russia) – In Russia, no. We only need to ask a request to the principal.
Participant 7 (RHD, Uganda) – It is a different process. For my Master back in Uganda it was involved with a school who processes the ethics on your behalf as opposed to here where you have to… In Uganda it is truly the principal investigators would take care of that and if it was a student-run project then the faculty would take care of that.
Positive Impacts of the Ethics Application Process
Participants predominantly commented on elements relating to the feedback which accompanied requests for amendments:
Participant 2 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – I really like the way that the feedback from the research committee is given. They only highlight the specific areas that need addressing. And then if we only focus on that aspect, then we can give the feedback amendments back. Sometimes they provide examples within their recommendations which is really helpful too.
Participant 9 (Coursework Master’s, Vietnam) – The forms are really comprehensive and the questions that came back were very interesting and made me consider and clarify the project in ways I didn’t anticipate.
Some seemed to be developing new values and independence as researchers:
Participant 5 (Coursework Master’s, Indonesia) – I think yes definitely because previously I never got that kind of knowledge before. So that is why back here I finally get new insight from this university about how to be really careful with our research about using ethics and having knowledge about how to conduct the research by having the ethics approval.
Participant 9 (Coursework Master’s, Vietnam) – Yes of course. I think that there is a reason behind why the ethics is so important for researchers here in [Australia]. For me I think that the ethics requirement is for my own sake first and then the sake of the participants.
These students realised the value of being an ethical researcher, in line with Marginson’s (2014) view of the importance to students of gaining new values during their overseas study.