The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy


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Do I need to obtain ethical approval?

If you are undertaking research in health and social care, independent ethical review is a legal requirement.

What is research?

The Department of Health defines ‘research’ in the Research Governance Framework for Health and Social Care (Second edition 2005) as ‘the attempt to derive generalisable new knowledge by addressing clearly defined questions with systematic and rigorous methods.’

The key words in the definition are ‘generalisable new knowledge’.

What is not research?

It can sometimes be difficult to decide whether you are undertaking research, clinical audit or service evaluation.

The aim of research is to derive generalisable new knowledge. Clinical audit and service evaluation measure standards of care.

  • Clinical audit assesses services against standards that have already been set. Audit provides a quality assurance mechanism for practice
  • Service evaluation identifies information about a service, such as its costs and benefits, strengths and weaknesses.

A primary discriminant between research, audit and evaluation is intent. Research is undertaken to find out what you should be doing; audit finds out whether you are doing specified activity and assesses whether it is working.

Further resources about what is and what is not research

White E, Hampson H. Chapter 1.6: Research ethics and governance (revised 2012). In: Moore A., Lyon P. Getting involved in research – a pocket guide. London; The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy, National Physiotherapy Research Network (2009) The chapter iincludes a table outlining key differences between research, audit and service evaluation.

Research ethics and governance

NHS Health Research Authority National Research Ethics Service (NRES). Defining research: NRES guidance to help you decide if your project requires review by a Research Ethics Committee (Revised ed.) London. Health Research Authority (2013)

Defining research: NRES guidance

This guidance also differentiates research from usual practice and surveillance work in public health.


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