UCL Department of Science and Technology Studies is an interdisciplinary centre for the integrated study of science's history, philosophy, sociology, communication and policy, located in the heart of London. Founded in 1921. Award winning for teaching and research, plus for our public engagement programme. Rated as outstanding by students at every level.

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STS research ethics

All research at UCL involving humans must be subjected to review for ethical standards, data protection, and safety. 

STS follows UCL's policies in these areas, with the following caveats: (1) no exceptions, (2) individuals must not be decision makers in the review of their own work, (3) policies apply to students as well as staff (and we celebrate the opportunity to demonstrate best practice), and (4) we strive for maximum compliance but minimal bureauocratic shuffling.

The following decision tree will assist you in deciding whether you need to apply for ethics approval, and if so at what level:


Advice to all

Begin with the STS Ethics Proforma. 

This is used as the first step in research review. The vast majority of projects undertaken within STS are classified as "minimal risk" by UCL, which means that the review process becomes quite straightforward. The Proforma allows STS to screen projects, so low risk research can proceed quickly. 

If the screening identifies a project as "high risk" research or raises some other query, then the Director of Research will guide you in what is required for approval. Normally, this involves a formal application to the UCL Research Ethics Committee.

The key aspect to remember about this process is that it takes time. However, this time must be built into your research timetable because data collection cannot begin until the approvals are in place.  As a guideline, you'll normally need at least two weeks between submission of your application and receiving departmental approval (for "minimal risk" projects only), and approximately 4-6 weeks for submissions to the main UCL Research Ethics Committee (not including the time it takes to draft the application and get the necessary supporting documentation in place).

Your completed Proforma should be submitted to the STS Research and Finance Administrator for registration, after which it will be passed to the Director of Research for approval.  You know the process is completed when the Director of Research gives you written approval - you'll receive a certificate with a unique approval code. Keep that written approval for your records - include it in your dissertation (if appropriate) and some academic journals are now requiring evidence of ethical approval before they'll publish your findings. 

Advice to students

Talk with your supervisor, in the first instance, about this. If you're in doubt if this applies to you, talk with your supervisor and/or course tutor.  In the second instance, talk with the STS Director of Research with responsibility for Ethics, Brian Balmer.

Take credit for best practice. Your ethical approval should be included in the write-up of your research, e.g., as an appendix (it does not add to your word count).  However, do NOT include any confidential information (for example signed consent forms or raw data) - those files should be stored in a locked location as per your ethics application information.  See your module syllabus or speak to Karen for further advice on this front.

In the case of student work (both undergraduate and postgraduate), if you don't have ethics in place when you collect the data then it cannot be used towards any type of submission, e.g. an assessment or dissertation. Technically UCL expects us to give you a zero mark if you submit anything that contains data which does not have prior ethical approval! A project undertaken without ethical review may therefore be disqualifed, meaning the work may receive no credit. Research is also subject to UCL policies, and projects undertaken without ethical approval may be subject to additional disciplinary action.

Top tips for conducting research in an ethical manner

This section is designed to provide you with basic information regarding what is 'ethically appropriate'.  Of course your specific research project may involve slightly different perspectives, so do speak to the STS Director of Research if you have any queries or would like further information about any of the following.

In line with wider ethical policies both within and external to UCL, there are three key accepted ethical standards that you MUST consider prior to submitting your application:

  • informed consent All participants must be fully informed of the study and what is being asked of them, including the potential risks/benefits and exclusion criteria, in order to make a fully informed decision about whether or not to participate in the research. This must be an active step on behalf of the participant and not due to any inducement, coercion or perceived pressure to participate. This consent should be commensurate with the data collected, e.g. for 'snapshot' interviews of 5mins or less duration a verbal introduction and consent would be appropriate (especially if recorded in some way), however for anything involving participants for 10mins or more you would be expected to provide a hardcopy information sheet and obtain signed written consent.
  • benefit not harm Research involving human participants must have a benefit to society and the risks involved to participants must be balanced against the potential benefit to the overall community.
  • confidentiality  All participants have the right for their participation to remain confidential in that only the researcher will be aware who has participated. Generally all data will also be anonymous in the final report so that nothing can be attributed back to an individual participant. There are exceptions, for instance where participants wish to be identified or they cannot realistically have their identities kept confidential, but written informed consent must be obtained from the individual participant in advance.

Additionally, within your application you are expected to consider the following elements:

  • withdrawal How will give participants the option to withdraw their data at a later date?  If the data is completely anonymised and cannot be traced to any particular individual then this may not be necessary, but in all other cases you should provide this option.  It's also advisable to include a deadline for withdrawal (e.g. a month before a dissertation or report is due or similar).
  • researcher safety considerations Do think about where you plan to collect your data.  Make sure it's in a publicly accessible location, and that someone (a friend, partner, tutor, colleague etc.) knows where you are, approximately when you're expected back, and to raise the alarm if you don't return within a specified time period.  Carry a mobile phone and be aware of the relevant transport options etc. in the area.  
  • data storage You need to comply with UCL's Data Protection Policy.  This mainly involves storing and transporting your data in an appropriate manner: any personal information must be kept separate to the raw data, plus everything must be 'secured' i.e. on password-protected and encrypted computer systems (electronic data) or in locked drawers or filing cabinets (hardcopies).
  • archiving data In some instances you may want to consider archiving your data for use by future researchers.  You will need to obtain explicit permission from the research participants, and ensure that it is stored in an appropriate manner.  Speak to Joe Cain about this if you'd like further information.

We want to help make the process as smooth as possible.  So come and have a chat if you have any questions.  It's often easier to discuss any grey areas in advance rather than post-submission. - Jon Agar, STS Director of Research

Key resources

Document Date Link 
STS Ethics Proforma (docx) - complete this form for review at departmental level Dec 2014
UCL Research Ethics Committee - there's lots of useful advice on this site regarding ethical procedures more generally, as well as specifics relating to applications for work deemed outside "minimal risk" June 2013 link
UCL Data Protection - you need to register for data protection prior to submitting any ethics applications to the central UCL committee June 2013 link
UCL Risk Assessment - General UCL guidance on different types of risk assessments that may be relevant. June 2013 link
Example supporting documents (zip) - this file contains annotated versions of an information sheet, consent form, interview protocol and short questionnaire.  You are welcome to adapt and adjust these as appropriate within your own work. June 2013 link

Page last modified on 13 may 16 11:06 by Susan E Walsh

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