Samaritans attaches considerable importance to the maintenance of high ethical standards and best practice in all research projects conducted by Samaritans staff and volunteers, or on behalf of the organisation by external research agencies and consultants.
It is important to note that Samaritans research activity is separate from the provision of emotional support. It is thus governed by the Research Ethics Policy, to align with professional and ethical standards in research, and not by Samaritans’ operational or service policies.
The purpose of this page is to explain Samaritans’ organisational policy in relation to research ethics, summarise key processes and identify areas of responsibility.
SCOPE OF THIS POLICY
This policy applies to all research conducted by or for Samaritans, or research which otherwise involves our staff, service users or volunteers.
Research can be understood in a variety of ways. At Samaritans, this includes not only traditional academic-style research but also ‘research-like’ activities that may be carried out within other aspects of our work, such as evaluation, service development, communications or fundraising.
Samaritans defines research as any activity which:
- Uses structured or systematic methods (such as surveys, polls, focus groups, interviews, observation, card sorting, user-testing/research techniques, or secondary data analysis) to generate new knowledge or insights
- Engages with or uses data about Samaritans staff, volunteers, service users or members of the wider public
All activities which meet this definition of research are subject to this policy. This does not mean that all such activities will be subject to formal research ethics review, since exemptions apply for some types of activity, but it does mean that the principles of sound and reflective research ethics practice (as outlined in Section 4) will apply.
Samaritans research activity is separate from the provision of emotional support. It is therefore governed by this Research Ethics Policy, to align with professional and ethical standards in research, and not by Samaritans’ operational or service policies.
1. Policy statement
When research is conducted by or for Samaritans, or Samaritans facilitates external research access to our staff, service users or volunteers, we require projects to go through a process of ethical reflection and, potentially, research ethics review.
This helps to protect the rights, interests and welfare of those involved in the research process, including, most importantly, the research participants who may be asked to contribute their time, effort, experiences and life stories. As such, the idea of ethical research is consistent with wider values and behaviours that Samaritans aims to promote.
Ethical research is also part of what professional and trustworthy research practice looks like. Samaritans’ research should be credible and robust, and completed to a high ethical standard. In practice, this means being rigorous in terms of what information we collect and analyse, and how we do that.
This policy sets out a series of core principles that underpin all Samaritans research activities and inform both our approach to research ethics and the specific procedures researchers should follow.
2. Research ethics principles
Our key principles for commissioning and conducting ethical research are based on those outlined in a resource to support research active third sector organisations to navigate ethical considerations (TSRF, 2021) and are broadly compatible with those in other relevant frameworks and guidance, such as the ESRC’s Framework for Research Ethics and the Government Social Research Unit’s Professional Guidance. The principles are:
- Need – Research should only be carried out where there is a clear evidence of need for the research and where the likely benefits clearly outweigh any risks.
- Integrity - Research should have integrity and be undertaken in an honest, open and respectful way, with participation on the basis of informed consent.
- Accountability – The researcher and the organisation undertaking or commissioning the research should be accountable to participants and wider stakeholders.
- Confidentiality – Wherever possible, research should protect the confidentiality and anonymity of participants, and any limitations to such assurances must be made clear to participants.
- Safety and wellbeing – The researcher1 and the organisation should ensure the safety and wellbeing of both participants and researchers.
Guidance for researchers on operationalising these principles in the context of specific studies or research activities can be found in the accompanying document Samaritans’ research ethics guidelines for researchers.
In relation to the culture and practice of research ethics within Samaritans, we consider that:
- The formal process of research ethics review and approval should be viewed as just one part, not the whole, of Samaritans’ research ethics practice, and should be embedded in a wider culture of awareness, knowledge, reflection and debate.
- The process of review itself should be proportionate to the risk and sensitivities of the activities, meaning that straightforward activities are not excessively burdened and that resources and energies can be focused on those which are complex and higher risk.
- The desire to protect particular groups (by potentially excluding them from research) should be balanced with the need to ensure that their voices are heard.
- People with lived experience2 should be involved in consideration of research ethics, including both questions of what research is done by Samaritans and how it is carried out.
- Not all ethics dilemmas have obvious, clear-cut solutions: therefore, decision-making should involve dialogue and discussion across different interests and perspectives.
- Questions of ethics are relevant throughout the research lifecycle, including decisions about: what research gets done, how it is carried out, and what happens in terms of knowledge exchange and impact activities; the dissemination process, including reporting and publication; and the archiving, future use, sharing and linking of data.
3. Process of research ethics review within Samaritans
All research within Samaritans should be conducted ethically; the principles of ethical practice (section 4) must be applied to all research activity, and some will require formal ethical review. There are several exemptions from the formal Samaritans ethics review processes.
Research which has been approved through a robust external process of ethics review does not need to go through a separate process within Samaritans, subject to confirmation that the approvals cover the entirety of the proposed research and that the review itself has been appropriately thorough. A university or NHS ethics committee will be considered as appropriately thorough. For other external ethics reviews, the review process and the reviewers will be scrutinised to determine its robustness, and if there is doubt, then Samaritans ethics review process will also be used.
Other projects which meet the definition of research may also not be subject to the process of formal research ethics review. The following types of activities are exempt:
- Projects which only involve secondary analysis of anonymous data (i.e. analysis of data that has already been collected through other research that doesn’t include any personal data)
- Projects which only involve the routine collection (or use) of existing data for the purposes of monitoring or service improvement (e.g. elog data)
- Short satisfaction or feedback surveys relating to the evaluation of training and/or one-off events (e.g. how well a training course was run)
- Generating case studies or profiles for use in communications, marketing, campaigns, or fundraising - completed in accordance with the agreed Samaritans case study procedures
- Low-sensitivity user-experience testing in accordance with the agreed Samaritans procedures
- Lived Experience Roles that are contracted to bring a lived experience perspective to a team, project or function - completed in accordance with the agreed Samaritans procedures
An ethics review must be undertaken for all research projects which are not subject to one of these exemptions. Reviews will be completed at one of three predefined levels, depending on level of risk posed by the research activity.
To determine the appropriate level of review, a short online risk assessment is completed by the project lead, which will clarify the likelihood of any ethical risk materialising and its impact if it does.
- Level 1 – Administrative review by the relevant Head of Team of the Samaritans’ staff member leading the activity, both of whom must have been trained in ethics review
- Level 2 – Expert review by 1-2 individual members of the Samaritans Research Ethics Board (SREB)
- Level 3 – Full review by 3-4 members of the SREB
The aim of review is to facilitate high quality, ethical research through a process which is proportional, collaborative, constructive and timely. If there is any doubt about the level of risk, or the respective level of review, the project should be referred to a member of the research team for support; any project can be escalated through the different levels of review as appropriate.
Further details of the review process are contained in the SREB Terms of Reference.
4. Other organisational and contractual requirements relating to research ethics
It must be determined whether any researchers working with or for Samaritans should be subject to checks by the appropriate authority for working with vulnerable people, including for example Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) in England. This is likely to depend on the nature of the project and the vulnerability of the population involved.
A copy of this policy and accompanying guidelines must be issued to external agencies (including research institutions, universities and market research companies) undertaking commissioned research on behalf of Samaritans, prior to the commencement of work.
Consideration of research ethics should form part of any tendering and procurement process that includes research and adherence to the ethics policy and guidelines should form part of the contract between Samaritans and any external research provider. Contracts covering ownership of information, copyright and citation privileges, access to data, data protection, and publication needs are required prior to the commencement of work conducted by any external agency.
If Samaritans partners with an external research body, it might be requested to submit research data to the UK Data Archive. In such instances, a decision about how/whether to proceed should be made on a case-by-case basis. If archiving data is a requirement of a study, Samaritans should not enter into an agreement or contract with an external research organisation until a risk assessment has been carried out.
During the course of carrying out research, any serious adverse events related to the research that occur to participants or researchers, should be notified to Samaritans Head of Research & Evaluation who will notify SREB and senior leadership.
Samaritans will review this policy every 3-4 years unless requested to do sooner by Samaritans Research team, Executive Leadership Team, Policy, Partnerships, and Research Committee and/or Board of Trustees.
5. Related policies and other organisational documents
Consideration of research ethics sits within the wider concept of research integrity, which includes the conduct of researchers, authorship and publication practices, and the handling of data. It is the responsibility of staff responsible for projects to ensure that research is carried out with integrity, and is compliant with the law, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and other relevant Samaritans policies, including those relating to confidentiality, disclosure of harm, safeguarding. This may require input from Samaritans legal or other specialist advice.
In this context, other documents that relate to the implementation of the research ethics policy include the following
- Ethics guidelines for conducting research with Samaritans
- Samaritans Research Ethics Board Terms of Reference
- Guidelines for low sensitivity user research
- Guidelines for generating and using case studies and profiles
- Guidelines for lived experience roles
- Samaritans payment policy for involvement in lived experience and research activities
5. Roles and responsibilities
The Policy, Partnerships, and Research Committee (PPRC - sub-committee of Samaritans Board of Trustees) has overall responsibility for the research ethics policy and oversight of its implementation, including the work of the SREB.
The SREB has responsibility for conducting Level 2 and Level 3 ethics reviews of individual projects/activities and for the provision of monitoring and feedback on the review process as a whole to PPRC. SREB will also have oversight of reviews conducted at each level, and will audit a selection of projects periodically as outlined in its ToR.
Samaritans Research team has responsibility for supporting the work of the SREB, providing training, guidance and advice to staff and ensuring its own research work follows this policy.
All Samaritans staff have a responsibility to be aware of the research ethics policy and to ensure that activities within the scope of the policy are subject to its requirements.