Ethical knowledge exchange and impact practices

Knowledge exchange and impact (KEI) activities and research ethics

I’m carrying out a Knowledge Exchange and/or impact activity. Do I need to apply for research ethics?

“The values and ethics of knowledge exchange comprise reputation, independence, accountability, credibility, trust, purpose and end use of research, and the means used to carry it out, transparency, what the letter and spirit of the law allow, and protecting people and resources. Identifying or mapping the ethics and values of knowledge exchange provides the final piece in the jigsaw of Responsible Knowledge Exchange”. (Baines, 2016: 241)

Knowledge exchange (KE) refers to any activity that communicates research findings or academic knowledge and skills to non-academic stakeholders.

  • Having a conversation with your research participants about your project is an example of a KE activity. Or, giving a talk to non-academic stakeholders at a public engagement event. These types of KE activities do not necessarily require ethical approval.
  • But there are other kinds of KE activities that would qualify as research projects and, hence, would need to undergo research ethics review by the School/LEL/Psychology Research Ethics Committees (RECs), similarly to regular research projects. This is especially the case if the planned KEI activity involves engagement with human participants. This would be the case even if the type of funding you have received for this activity comes from a KEI source, provided that your proposed activity meets the research study criteria outlined below.

When does a KEI activity qualify as a research project or activity?

Research is the systematic investigation of a problem or question that may implement experimental or empirical work to develop or contribute to new and/or generalisable knowledge (Frascati Manual, 2015, OECD).

  • For example, researchers may want to investigate how stress might impact on or affect people’s diet; or how being in lockdown might affect use of social media in young children; or how social distancing affects/impacts on maintaining bilingual language use in bilingual families.

These are research studies measuring the impact or the effect of a certain variable on people’s behaviour. You are required to apply for ethical approval, if your KEI activity involves any collection or analysis of data from human participants with the intent to answer research questions that will generate new and/or generalisable knowledge. More generally, during research:

  1. participants may be exposed to manipulation, intervention, observation or other interaction with investigators, either directly or through alteration of their environment; or
  2. participants may become individually identifiable through investigators’ collection, preparation or use of personal material or other records; and
  3. you may plan on using the data for academic or other professional publications (as opposed to using data for organisational purposes, though this may still qualify is (1) and (2) hold).

When your KEI activities are classified as research, participants or their legal representative (for example, if the study involves child or vulnerable participants) have a legal right to know their rights and to fully understand what is expected of them if they voluntarily agree to participate.

When does a KEI activity NOT qualify as a research project or activity?

Non-research KEI activities differ from research in that they generally: measure impact or evaluate how successful/effective a knowledge exchange/public engagement event is. For example if your activity is: 

  • A quality assurance/quality improvement/organisational effectiveness study where the intent is to assess, improve, or develop programs or services for an organisation
    • E.g., asking questions like ‘How much did you know prior/after the event about our research?’ , ‘What would you change in the future?’, ‘Were the speakers clear?’, ‘Who would you like to hear from next time?’ etc.; and
  • Outcomes remain specific to the organisation, programs or services (although other organisations may use the results for their own programs).

These are not research activities and do not require ethical approval to be carried out.

However, if your form of assessment includes collecting participant-related information to better understand the make-up of the KEI activity audience, you need to consider whether or not the information you’re collecting raises issues of participant identifiability, and hence, may have ethical repercussions. This will depend on the type of information you will aim to collect (see case study X below).

Case studies: KE and Research

Below are some examples of when ethical approval may or may not be required. Please email PPLS.REC@ED.AC.UK if you have specific queries about your study or if you’d like to contribute here with further examples.
Case study 1. I received KEI funding to survey health professionals’ attitudes and knowledge of bilingualism, among other KEI activities. These findings will be later communicated through presentations to non-academic stakeholders. Do I need ethics approval to carry out this study?
Yes. The KE component that relates to the survey would need to undergo REC review, as it involves collecting data from human participants with potentially identifiable information. If you’re additionally planning on recruiting your participants via NHS channels, you may need additional NHS REC approval.

Case study 2. I’ve taken on a consultancy that involves testing children and collecting (non-)identifiable data in a local school. The purpose of the consultancy is to measure how a particular teaching activity impacts on children’s language learning. There will be a pre- and a post-intervention phase. Among other things, the data will be used in peer-reviewed publications. Do I need ethics approval to carry out this study?
Yes. This activity involves interaction with human participants, intervention and data collection from vulnerable participants (in this case children). These activities would need to undergo ethics review and would be evaluated by two reviewers, similarly to standard research projects with vulnerable participants. An additional reason for undergoing ethics review is because the data will be used in peer-reviewed publications.

Case study 3. This is not my main research area, but I’ve received KE funding to work with an external stakeholder to assess the impact of verbal instructions on preschoolers’ likelihood of trying new foods. It is a pilot study and we can test only a small group of children in one local nursery. We will also use a questionnaire from parents to find out about the children’s eating habits. Do I need ethics approval to run this study?
Yes. Even pilot studies with small number of participants require ethics approval. The data collection involves vulnerable participants (children) and responses of parents/guardians to specific questions about their children and their eating habits.

Case study 4. Our team has set up an exhibition based on our research project and findings, and we want to assess whether or not this Knowledge Exchange event was successful. We plan to collect visitors’ views via a questionnaire that will be distributed at the event and online and will include questions like ‘How much did you know about our research project before/after the event?’. We will also leave a visitor book behind for further comments. All answers will be anonymous and not traceable back to any specific individual. We may report the results in an impact case study. Do we need ethics approval?
No. In this case you do not need ethics approval because you are assessing the impact of your public engagement/knowledge exchange event, not of human behaviour.

Case study 5. My team has prepared a reunion for our participants. It is a public engagement event where the participants will be introduced to the results of our research. We want to assess the event with an anonymous questionnaire, but we also want to ask questions about the participants’ views on some important topics related to our research (e.g., what they think about different medical procedures). Do we need ethics approval?
Yes, if there is a component in your event that includes data collection seeking to answer a novel research question, including the participants’ views and attitudes (i.e., what’s the participants’ view on different medical procedures?). But you will not need ethics approval for collecting data to assess the event (see Example 4).

Case study 6. I’m planning to carry out a KEI activity as part of a larger research project. I have already received ethical approval for the research project. The KEI activity, however, will use different materials to the main project and will address separate questions. Do I need separate ethics approval to run the KEI activity?
This will depend on the nature of your KEI activity and the related data collection: No. If it’s a KE activity aimed to share the results of your research project (without collecting new research data), then there’s no need for ethics. This would be similar to Example 4 in the document (exhibition designed to share research findings).
Yes. If your KEI activity meets the research criteria mentioned above and constitutes a separate research activity from the main research project for which you’ve already received ethical approval, you’ll need to apply separately for ethics approval for the KEI activity.

Case study 7. I am interested in finding out whether my event was better received by different generations. Do I need ethical approval?
This will depend on the nature of the data collected, even if this is not strictly a research activity: Identifiable information raises ethical issues regarding data storage and use. Hence, organisers of KEI activities would need to consider in advance what level of granularity about participant information they need, and how this aligns with the purpose of the KEI activity (evaluation/impact of KEI event as opposed to research project). Therefore, no, if you will collect data about participants’ age by asking them to circle an age bracket (e.g. 15-25 years old, 26-46, 46-59, 60+), but yes, if you ask them to provide their exact date of birth, along with other information that might make them easy to identify.