Ethics committees at universities of applied sciences

14.6.2018

At universities of applied sciences, the job of ethics committees is to conduct preliminary ethical reviews of research in the human sciences.

Finland’s universities of applied sciences have undertaken to comply with the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity’s guidelines on responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct in Finland. The Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity (TENK) has also proposed in its publication “Ethical principles of research in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences and proposals for ethical review” that ethics committees be founded at research organisations. At universities of applied sciences, the job of ethics committees is to conduct preliminary ethical reviews of research in the human sciences. It is essential to ensure that preliminary ethical reviews are also conducted at universities of applied sciences, as under the Universities of Applied Sciences Act (932/2014), their mission includes carrying out research. The Act defines the mission of universities of applied sciences as follows (Section 4):

“...to provide higher education for professional expert jobs based on the requirements of working life and its development and on the premises of academic research and academic and artistic education and to support the professional growth of students.”

“They shall also carry out applied research, development and innovation activities and artistic activities that serve education in universities of applied sciences, promote industry, business and regional development and regenerate the industrial structure of the region. In carrying out their mission, universities of applied sciences shall promote lifelong learning.”

Characteristic features of design research are often reflected in the ethical issues arising in research conducted at universities of applied sciences – the work highlights practical needs, solutions are rapidly put to use and projects involve several actors.

An example of an ethics committee at a university of applied sciences

Several universities of applied sciences found a place for themselves under the research ethics committees of the universities in their area. In 2012, the Federation of Universities of Applied Sciences (FUAS) encompassing Häme, Lahti and Laurea Universities of Applied Sciences decided to establish their own ethics committee whose operations will be described below. Previously only Laurea had an ethics committee, and this provided best practice for the new committee. FUAS has approximately 20,000 students and approximately 1,200 full-time staff (2017).

Over the years, a joint committee covering more than one university of applied sciences has proved to be a successful solution. The wide-ranging team of experts and training events that it provides serve a large number of students and staff. Members of each of the member universities of applied sciences are represented on the committee and the majority of these are PhDs in their field. All of the areas of education are represented (technology, social services and health care, administration and commerce, natural resources, culture and the arts, and the tourism and catering sector). A student member is selected from each of the universities’ student bodies. The committee meets 2–3 times a year. In putting together an ethics committee, TENK emphasises familiarity with the content of the research fields because preliminary ethical review involves examining the way the research is carried out and expertise in research methods. In our view, this committee successfully realises this aim.

The key duties of the committee are to issue statements, to stimulate ethical debate and maintain a shared databank.

Issuing preliminary ethical review statements

In theses completed at universities of applied sciences, preliminary ethical review is primarily intended for postgraduate research work, i.e. theses for master’s degrees and research and projects carried out by staff. Preliminary ethical review is based on TENK’s principles. In addition to these principles, the student or researcher can request a statement from an ethics committee if the subject of their research, the funding body or partner so requires, or if there are plans to publish the research findings in a scientific journal where preliminary ethical review is compulsory.

According to the TENK guidelines on preliminary ethical review, supervisors of theses in bachelor’s degrees are responsible for compliance with ethical principles. If, however, a thesis as part of a bachelor’s degree requires preliminary ethical review, the student should apply for this jointly with their supervisor.

In reaching its conclusion, the committee will take into account the following factors: the aim, purpose and relevance of the research, any harm and risks to the subjects caused by the research, progress of the research with the measures it includes, the documents relating to the research (including their content and storage), procedures used and handling of the results, the safety of the research, the body commissioning the research, the people participating in the research and their view of the ethical issues relating to the research, and financial factors (including research funding).

Below, two examples are presented of research conducted at universities of applied sciences where a preliminary ethical review was requested. Two teachers at a university of applied sciences carried out research whose purpose was to develop an evaluation of knowledge-based learning for post-graduation top-up training for nurses. The research was carried out in two universities of applied sciences and the research subjects were students. The research had been well prepared and all the necessary documents were appended for examination. The ethics committee gave the research a positive preliminary ethical review.

Another example is a thesis completed by a master’s degree student where the student requested a preliminary ethical review. The subject of the thesis was promoting sexual health in young people in child welfare. In its statement, the committee suggested adding to the thesis plan regarding ethical factors as it was not originally clear from the plan how the material would be analysed after collection, nor how the material would be stored and destroyed once the thesis was complete. Nor did the plan mention the need for a research permit or to apply for a research permit from the target organisation or to obtain the consent of the adults who were also participating in the research.

Training and a shared databank

One of the ways in which the members of the committee uphold ethical debate at the universities of applied sciences is by organising an annual FUAS research ethics day with a theme linked to topical ethical issues. Ethical questions relating to theses and research and development activities have been key topics. An open databank has been compiled for staff, gathering together literature and interviews on research integrity by field of study. The databank is used by lecturers as well as research, development and innovation staff.

Central elements in the work of the ethics committee are monitoring national debate on research integrity, attending training and networking. The new Research Integrity Adviser system at universities is one excellent way of sharing experiences, gaining support and learning from colleagues.

Mervi Friman, Head of Strategic Development, Häme University of Applied Sciences
Päivikki Lahtinen, Lecturer, Lahti University of Applied Sciences


Further information:

Open Science and Research: openscience.fi
Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity 2012. Responsible conduct of research and procedures for handling allegations of misconduct. Helsinki 2012: Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity. http://www.tenk.fi/sites/tenk.fi/files/HTK_ohje_2012.pdf
Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity 2009. Ethical principles of research in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences and proposals for ethical review. Helsinki: Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity. http://www.tenk.fi/sites/tenk.fi/files/ethicalprinciples.pdf