How to write a meaningful research ethics application: A guide for SUMERNET researchers

Sustainable Mekong Research Network (SUMERNET) has provided guidance on ethical practice and necessary measures to safeguard the interest of human participants including integrity, respect, responsibility, competence, social equity, and ethical balance. Moreover, the research ethics application has been recently established to support SUMERNET researchers to uphold rigorous research standards and accountability for their research activities, collaborations, and social impacts.

Sudarat Tuntivivat By Sudarat Tuntivivat - Sep 24, 2020

The impetus for this guide is to assist SUMERNET researchers to construct meaningful research ethics applications and avoid common mistakes in the research ethics process. The three important aspects to obtain research ethics approval are to describe each element of application criteria, explain research methodology, and apply SUMERNET ethics principles.

Describe each element of application criteria

It is vital for SUMERNET researchers to understand and describe each element of SUMERNET ethics application form and supporting documentations required in order to provide sufficient information to the research committees to fulfil their role in protecting the interests of participants. The ethics approval is based on acceptability of the research according to one of the three proposed ethics category: Co-design project, Primary data project, and Secondary data project.

  • Category One: Co-design project - is a research project that is anticipated to be undertaken with direct collaboration and engagement with local community, organization, group or individual.
  • Category Two: Primary data project - is a research project that has a field component within the project, but does not have direct collaboration, only conduct interview, focus group, and survey with local community, organization, group or individual.
  • Category Three: Secondary data project - is a research project that is laboratory or desktop based and does not have direct collaboration with local community, organization, group or individual.

It also requires acceptable research methods: recruitment of participants: informed consent process: manage confidential data and other sensitive information: as well as potential risks and benefits of research activities.

Explain research methodology and data collection

A sound research methodology produces reliable results which have a meaningful contribution to original knowledge and social impact. On the other hand, an unsound research methodology has negative ethical consequences. Therefore, it is essential for SUMERNET researchers to plan a research design and methodology tools carefully. It is also important to consider how data is collected and how it is stored and analyzed is central to delivering high quality research. The research ethics application would be enriched with the provision of the tools listed in this application (e.g. consent forms, survey, interview guidelines) as well as how the participants who will be selected (e.g. random, quota, stratified or targeted) along with how disaggregated the data will be (e.g. women and men chosen as well as poor, medium and rich). Moreover, data storage should outline if data is identifiable, de-identified, or anonymous. For exploratory research design, it might be difficult to fully spell out the research design, study sites, and other methodological tools in advance. Nonetheless, the researchers need to clarify how the research process will reach SUMERNET ethical standards and have a broad outline of specific tools identified.

Apply SUMERNET Ethics principles

It is extremely important for SUMERNET researchers to illustrate clearly on the research ethics application that they will apply the six principle SUMERNET ethics in order to obtain ethics approval and ethically conduct the research.

Research team demonstrates the commitment to the genuine search for knowledge and understanding which show in honest research conduct and trust in the research process. Integrity is also included in the plan to manage data and dissemination of results in ways that contribute to knowledge and protect the trust participants placed in researchers.

Research team provides clear evidence of recruitment, informed consent and protection of data associated with participants. It is important to demonstrate clearly how confidentiality and anonymity will be maintained according to research methodology. Moreover, the duration and methods of data storage should be outlined. Respect also requires prior knowledge of the culture, values, and practice in the research context.

Research team plans to inform all participants with clear information on the project aims, research process, intended outcome, potential risks and benefits, as well as their rights to withdraw from the research activity at any time. Responsibility also involves the duty to maximize benefits and minimize harms.

            Research team illustrates their knowledge, skills, and ability to manage potential risks, conflicts, and ethical issues of conducting and delivering research. It is critical for the researchers to reflect on potential risks and conflicts and figure out ways to address the issue.

Social Equity
Research team identifies a fair process for selection and recruitment of research participants and boundary partners, no unfair burden of participation on particular groups and fair distribution of an access to the benefits of participation in the research activity.

Ethical Balance
Research team notifies how ethical principles may differ in different research contexts and takes steps to implement ethical principles in ways that are respectful to all views and values.  

In sum, the research ethic application process is a great opportunity for SUMERNET researchers to learn and reflect on research methodology and ethics principles. The rigorous ethical standard not only safeguard the interest of human participants, but generate reliable research outcomes and meaningful impacts in reducing water insecurities for all, in particular, the poor, marginalized and socially vulnerable groups of women and men in the Mekong Region.

The ethics guide can be download here.


SUMERNET Ethics Guide: The importance of ethical practice in research. (2020).

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