Winning the “Plataforma Brasil”

Plataforma Brasil is a portal where Brazilian researchers can register their studies to be evaluated by Research Ethics Committees at Universities. Before starting the post, I would like to highlight some points that I consider important:

  • The portal was initially developed to serve research in the Biological areas, so those who carry out social research will probably feel out of place with some questions.
  • The importance of having your research approved by an Ethics Committee is that even if it does not appear to pose any risk to its participants, if there is any unexpected problem (unexpectedly, understand what you did not expect), you will have by your side the committee that approved your project to defend you (as long as you didn’t deviate from what was in the project).
  • I’m not an expert on Ethics Committees, nor on Ethics and Morals… I just gained a little experience in that environment from several mistakes, returned projects and a long conversation with an expert (so long that I cleaned two large jars of cookies that were in his room). This allowed me to informally help some people with this difficulty in winning Plataforma Brasil.

Zeroth thing… is your research in Social Sciences? So you will probably have to understand the least about Ethics Committees. Unicamp, for example, requires that all research in Social Sciences present a document from the Ethics Committee stating whether the research is approved or if it does not require approval from the Ethics Committee. Yes, the Ethics Committee in many cases needs to say that your research did not need to go through the Ethics Committee. Although this seems like unnecessary bureaucracy, think that the University wants to protect itself from problems and believe me, you should want this too. So, no matter how far away your research is from any interaction with human beings, forward this question to the Ethics Committee to investigate it.

First thing… have you already completed a degree (bachelor’s, licentiate, technologist)? This was certainly my mistake for not knowing enough about the Platform and I will explain a little about its importance. If you have a degree, then you can be the main researcher of the project, that is, it will be registered from your data and you will be responsible for it, although other researchers and collaborators can be part and have authorizations within the project, you follow being responsible. This makes it easier, especially in other bureaucracies, such as not having to fill in with someone else’s access to the system. So, if you, like me, having a degree and maintaining a youthful look, go there and ask the coordination of the faculty to sign your project and someone says just by looking at you that “you need to be your advisor as the main researcher, otherwise we won’t sign”. Don’t do what I did, be insistent and say you are graduates (despite looking young), so you can answer as the main researcher on that project…

Second thing… when you click to submit a new project pay 10x more attention to the first page that appears, called “Preliminary Information”. Because you can go back and edit all the other pages in your project, except for some information on that page! For example, “Proposing Institution”. This question makes several projects come back because some universities have more than one Ethics Committee, as in the case of Unicamp. So, if we fill in “in a hurry” we can register our project in the Social Sciences area to be evaluated by the Medical Sciences Committee, and the return is automatic and this topic cannot be changed later, that is, you will have to create another one. project and fill it all in again from scratch.

Third thing… pay attention to the dates. Ethics committees meet on specific dates of the month to review projects submitted by a certain date. If your submission is registered (that is, after you submit, the Committee secretary verifies that it is suitable for review) by the deadline, it will be reviewed that month, but if this occurs a day later, you will have to wait for the next month’s meeting. Considering vacations, recesses, leaves… a project that could be evaluated in a month can take about 5 months, I, for example, submitted my doctoral project on December 6, 2019, and he received the first opinion on May 19, 2019. 2020 (165 days later). In this period, as I mentioned, there were 1001 setbacks, from vacations, recesses, pandemic…

Fourth thing… once you know what you want to research and more or less how you’re going to do it, start chasing the Ethics Committee. Because you will have to wait until the Ethics Committee approves your research to actually start collecting data with human subjects. I say that it is important to know what you want to research much more than how it will happen, because for the Committee what your research will generate doesn’t really matter much. They don’t care about the text you will publish from this collection, nor about your 200-page theoretical framework explaining… The Committee’s interest is in your methods of obtaining the data and the Ethics in your procedures. So, it may seem a bit contradictory when I say that you don’t need to be 100% clear about these procedures when you start running after the Ethics Committee, because in the course of completing and preparing the project, the correction requests that it may receive, you will have these clearer collection procedures until your approval.

Fifth thing… schedules are treacherous! One of the mandatory documents that you will need to attach to the project is the schedule. It should have when your data collection will start. The problem is that we don’t know at first when the project will be approved. That is, if I submit it in February and hope that it is approved in May, I will put it on the schedule that activities begin in June. But then something unexpected happens and he will be evaluated in July. The evaluator will look and say that the “schedule is wrong” because the project cannot start in June (after all, we are already in July), so he will return the project asking for the schedule to be corrected and then he will leave for at least another month … On the other hand, the project is submitted in February and a collection date is set well ahead, such as October. Then everything goes great and the project receives approval in April, your hands are tied to start collecting earlier, as you are only approved to do this from October onwards. How to deal with this issue without relying so much on luck? One solution I found for this problem is to put a note next to the schedule explaining that “data collection independent of the schedule will only occur after approval by the Ethics Committee”. This allows you to put a start date closer to your submission, without running the risk of going beyond it, as the Committee will understand that the research will wait for your approval to actually start.

Sixth thing… choose to stay on the fence. If there is a procedure for your collection that you can explain more generally, do so. For example, you plan to work in three weekly face-to-face classes over three consecutive weeks in MA123122 class B, each with a different intervention… it’s a bad idea to put it that way! Because if any detail occurs differently, you will no longer be acting the way they approved you to act (like, there was a holiday, a recess, class B moved to class A, the opportunity arose to work also in discipline MA123121, classes face-to-face meetings had to be interrupted…). In a situation like this, try to write something like “we will work in three periods of didactic activities within the XXXXX theme”. Great, if a generic text like this is approved, you have greater freedom to work around setbacks. In my case it was similar, I wrote my doctoral project a bit generic, leaving very broad terms but in my head intending to work face-to-face with small groups (like 5-10 students). It turns out that the pandemic came and everything turned upside down, very specific projects were kind of frozen, having to be changed to continue, but mine followed within what was not so specific… classes, I didn’t say it would be face-to-face either… that gives you more freedom to tie the ends in the future (the only problem is not to leave it too generic so that the Committee doesn’t understand what you’re going to do…).

Seventh thing… on the second page of the project submission, we will have “Special Thematic Area (indicate all thematic areas of the project, if applicable)”, type, research in the Education area that will deal theoretically or indirectly with any of these themes in didactic activities, do not fill out that your research involves any of these topics… On the same page we have “Public Research Title” and “Research Main Title”, in practice, your public title will only be different from your main title, when there is something in the title that cannot be made public without affecting your study. For example, my main title says something that could affect the interest of my participants to participate, or indicate in some way the profile of the answers that my hypothesis supposes to find, or even involves something linked to a brand that should not be disclosed. In these situations, it is up to the public title to be different from the main title.

Eighth thing… On the third page “Study Design / Financial Support” understand Research Design a general explanation of your study in terms of procedures, objectives and intentions regarding data collection. For example, “to investigate public engagement with science blogs, each participant will be presented with 10 post titles related to Mathematics for each participant to choose from one to three posts, read them and answer specific questions through an electronic form… ”. This is very summarized, but it goes with what the research will do… there is a limit of words to use, so again, there’s no point in wanting to paste your entire monograph here. Now about “Funding”, even if you think no one is paying for it, believe me, there is someone paying for your research and that someone is probably you. Like, it may seem kind of obvious, but projects come back if they don’t have that part filled in, every project has a cost, has an expense, even if it’s printing materials, creating a website, formatting answers… everything that involves some kind of effort can be priced and if you are doing all this work then you are paying for your own service and the way to say that is to put “Own funding”. Then you’ll have to write a little about some of your costs, even the ones you don’t consider, try to consider them… gasoline? food? work hours? That if it was assigned to a third party would cost you something, so it’s a budget you’re paying for yourself.

Ninth thing… On the fourth page “Study Details” the broth will thicken a bit. Summary, Introduction, Hypothesis, Primary and Secondary Objective and Proposed Methodology, all of these should be the same as your project, so there will be no problem so far. If you’ve entered a graduate course, you must have at some point seen how to write these things. Now let’s get to the problem…

  • Inclusion Criteria and Exclusion Criteria: What defines that someone will be a participant in your study? Like, do you have to be over 18? Do you need to be regularly enrolled in a higher education course? What are the conditions that you are looking for from your audience that make sense to analyze in your research… and on the other hand, the exclusion criterion tells you what you do not want to have in your research with this audience. For example, I wouldn’t want to have math bloggers as participants in my survey of audience engagement with math blogging… as this would be a group of participants that could give me very different answers than the audience that doesn’t have math blogs. Thus, I would place this as an exclusion criterion in this situation. This is important as it protects you above all from being accused for other reasons of not placing someone in your search. I recently donated a blood sample for a research on sleep inducers, and I had a list of about 10 characteristics that would exclude the participant, such as heart disease, use of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, having insomnia…
  • Risks… stop now, go get some water and come back soon to continue this part. Because I believe that this is the champion of returned projects. Let’s start then… every project with human beings brings a risk to the participant! You may be thinking “baaaaah, but what is this? My survey is just an internet form… “. Anyway, it may not seem like it, I didn’t believe it myself a few years ago, but today I’m one of those who defend this flag… A better way to explain it would be like this “every interaction with human beings involves some risk”. This means that when you are going to work with some material whose access to the participants’ data has some form of restriction, this could bring some risk to the participant. Think of it like this, we’re talking in a closed Facebook group about JavaScript, and there I write a lot about my opinion about JavaScript. You look at it and think, wow, I’m going to write an article about these comments… after all, they’re there, they’re public, right? So it’s not like that. For starters, the group is not public, although it has thousands of participants, that doesn’t make it public content, maybe I wouldn’t write this if the group wasn’t on that specific subject and closed those thousands of participants. Another point, if there is any way to identify myself from what I wrote, this can consequently backfire on me, causing me moral damage or some form of discomfort. It is different, for example, from this blog post, which is public content, that is, anyone, regardless of the degree of access, can find it and when publishing, I am aware that I will be publicly exposed to this text I write. With this, we can see that if your research involves, for example, textbooks… no problem, these are public content (you just have to buy them), there is no need to contact their authors or even worry that finding content errors will hurt your ego… But with more particular contents, this must be considered, even a simple question can generate discomfort and discomfort in the participant that we do not imagine. Even putting a person to play video games, the risks of this action must be considered (anyone who has played Resident Evil 3 must have had a palpitation in the chest when the Nemesis appears jumping out the window, now imagine a person with heart disease playing this). So, when you get to this part of the project, sit down with a notebook and start listing all the risks, no matter how absurd they seem, and put your possible countermeasures to reduce them.
  • Benefits: Your research will bring you some benefit and supposedly will contribute to the specialized literature, but that’s not what this part of the filler wants to know. It seeks to understand if there is any benefit to the participant who will volunteer in this study. In this case, try to think about what the participant can gain from this (remembering that this gain cannot be material, sweets, or money). This gain has to be linked to something that your research will contribute, such as learning, a diagnosis, access to some resource, feedback on your answers, specific guidelines or even a benefit for people who will use what this research is developing. Somehow, if you get something from society, you must be able to give something back to society.
  • SAMPLE SIZE: How many participants will be part of your study? If you work with limited samples, like a friend of mine who is doing a PhD in Special Education, she has defined that there will be 3 groups of 10 participants. Okay! But if you work with collection objects that can grow indefinitely, what do you do? Put 1000 participants? But what if it does (it would be great to have a collection like this going viral)? Should we put like, twice the population of Brazil? After all, if the collection is in Brazil, it will hardly exceed this amount… But it would be strange to have a sample with almost 500 million participants and, in practice, to obtain 50 participants… the solution to this is simpler than assuming any value. It’s putting 0 in the sample size. This value will be interpreted by whoever evaluates it as an arbitrary amount that will depend on the scope of the project. In my case with blocks to prove theorems, I didn’t know how many participants I would reach, it could be 10, 100, 1000… in the end, I had 212. But since my sample size said 0, this is in agreement without having to assume a higher margin giant.
  • Country of recruitment: If your research will have participants outside Brazil, prepare yourself, because in addition to the common Ethics Committee, you will have to go through a more rigid one… after all, it will be in the sphere of an international research… It’s worth going through this extra process for a few extra participants that might show up in your study.

Tenth thing… on the fifth page, “Other Information” we again have questions about the number of participants. If your sample involves getting as much as possible without a ceiling, put 0. Also on this page, there is a question about waiver of the Free and Informed Consent (ICF). Let’s put it this way, if your research doesn’t allow you to identify the participants, for example, the data comes to you with the identifications already coded (for example, INEP data on the ENEM results), you should put it at this point. Because for reasons of force majeure, you cannot obtain these authorizations from the participants, nor can you identify them. However, if you make a form and decide that there is no space for identification, this can compromise your research results, after all, what guarantees you that those who answered these questions correspond to your expected sample? It may be that you yourself have answered your questionnaire 50 times and this has given you the data you would like. Thus, it is different, for example, if you do not have access to this information, if you deprive yourself of access to it. Another example, if I’m going to carry out a survey with chess players from the website it’s unlikely that I’ll be able to talk to them via chat (few respond) and also the information I have about them is basically their nickname on the website , their nationalities and information about chess matches. Putting it this way, you could ask for a waiver of the term, explaining that they will be communicated about the research via the website’s communication channel, and if they manifest otherwise, their data will be withdrawn from the study.

Eleventh thing… After filling everything in, we arrived at the Files part of the project. As a rule, gather authorization from all those involved, schools, blogs, institutions, any body that is associated with your data and will contribute to your study, it would be good to have their authorization in this work. This part of the site however usually crashes, it does not accept .pdf files with compound names, so be patient and if necessary, exit and enter the portal again to complete. Upload everything you need and even what seems exaggerated, let the Committee say that these documents were not necessary, as this is better than after a few months you receive a return asking you to send one of these documents.

Twelfth thing… After uploading all the documents, you should already be exhausted, but we will have the “Finish” part. Here the first question says “Keep the entire research project confidential?”. So this is the kind of question that usually doesn’t make a lot of sense in the social sciences, because if we’re not working on patents, there’s not much to keep secret about the project. If it is really necessary, you will have to stipulate a deadline for this, or to keep it confidential until the results are published. Finally, if you have filled in everything so far, you can now send your project to be evaluated.

Thirteenth thing… now that you have sent the project, wait and be patient, one day you will receive an email talking about your project, see exactly what they ask for, sometimes it is kind of hard to find what they are requesting, but it will appear in this window here :

Fourteenth thing… before starting your project, register on Plataforma Brasil, create a random project, copy the questions you will have to answer and fill in the items anyway just to advance the steps. It is interesting that you write your project already thinking about how it will be evaluated by the Committee, this will give you more or less a template of how to do it and which topics to pay attention to when writing. Advance all you want by uploading random documents, just don’t put them to send 🙂

Fifteenth thing… morals and ethics are different things. The Committee is for Research Ethics, not for Morals, so you will be evaluated within what is Ethical. If you’re going to use fringe questions to find out things the participant wouldn’t want to reveal even though it might seem immoral, it could very well be considered ethical. As a rule, contact those responsible for the Ethics Committee to have a conversation about your research, what you intend, what your intentions are and how it is possible to carry them out within ethical procedures.

Sixteenth thing… the University will probably have its own Ethics Committee documents, resolutions, regulations… try to find them to clear up any doubts, as each committee has some degree of freedom to decide these issues. So, some specifics that are valid for Unicamp may not be valid for USP or UNESP… That is, before fighting for something that involved in your project, remember that in the last step before sending, you marked that “I agreed with those rules”.

I think the big question you might have right now is, why are we talking so much about the Ethics Committee in this Mathematics blog? The answer is simple, I am a researcher in the Social Sciences, and this is a necessary topic to discuss. As I mentioned at the beginning of this text, I am no expert on the subject, but there are some tips that can speed up this process and make more researchers in the Social Sciences who like mathematics do their research with the approval of the Ethics Committees. Although it may seem that I teach here several tricks on how to “dribble” this machine, see like this, I’m not part of any Committee, so everything I tell and report here, I do through what I learned without access to privileged information. That is, although it seems immoral, it is still ethical 😛

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