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Applying for Research Ethics Approval

All research conducted in the Department of Anthropology including staff research is subject to Research Ethics approval sought on the basis of the procedures outlined below. Field-research or sensitive internet inquiry can only commence once approval is gained and cannot be given retrospectively. UCL deems that research that has been carried out without formal ethical approval be disqualified and be ineligible for either examination or publication under UCL’s name.

The point of research ethics is to ensure that the rights, dignity and best interests of all parties involved in, or affected by, research are protected. Often this simply means gaining consent from informants and organisations, behaving with empathy in the field, and providing anonymity to people and places during and after the research phase. Where, though, it is difficult to predict how proposed research is likely to ethically impact upon informants and their institutions, and/or where informants may well be ‘vulnerable’ and so unable to exercise informed consent in a straightforward manner, application for ethics approval requires a more detailed outline of projects, contexts and methods.

Far from being negatively disposed, the Departmental Research Ethics Committee anticipates helping staff and students shape their research and pitch their proposals so that research can proceed in areas that might otherwise be ethically problematic.

Thinking About the Ethical Implications of Research and Filing Applications for Ethics Approval

1. The ethical implications of any piece of proposed research should be thought through with supervisors, mentors or colleagues in consultation with UCL REC guidelines and regulations (especially see http://ethics.grad.ucl.ac.uk/exemptions.php). A clear description of the topic, location and proposed methodology of the research needs to be outlined.

2. Where proposed research is estimated to be ethically unproblematic (low risk, see below), students AND staff should fill in the Departmental REC Form (at www.ucl.ac.uk/anthropology/current-students) and obtain a signature from their supervisor, mentor or colleague. The project should be outlined briefly, providing sufficient detail to show why the research is likely to be ethically unproblematic. Forms can be downloaded from this site, completed electronically but printed out and submitted to the UG, Masters or PGR administrator.

3. Where, without special safe-guards, the research is likely to be ethically sensitive (medium-high risk, see below), students and staff should fill in the UCL REC form, a sample of which is at http://ethics.grad.ucl.ac.uk/forms/appform_sample.pdf. Application to the UCL REC on a real form requires prior registration which is listed on the UCL REC site (at http://ethics.grad.ucl.ac.uk/index.php). Once complete, this form should firstly be sent to the Chair of the Departmental Ethics Committee for feedback and signature. No applications should be sent directly to UCL REC. The UCL REC looks to see if the researcher displays strong awareness of the ethical issues involved, especially relating to methodology, safe-guards, anonymity & data protection and consent from individuals and organisations.

4. Where students, supervisors & staff are unsure as to which form to complete, they should contact the Chair of the Departmental REC or directly contact the UCL REC at http://ethics.grad.ucl.ac.uk/contact.php

Levels of Ethical Risk

1. Low Risk in relation to ethical issues in research is defined by the UCL Research Ethics Committee to include research that:

(a) is legal and does not interface with any criminal or illegal practice

(b) is with ‘non-vulnerable’ subjects who are themselves capable of judging whether the research could be damaging to their person or best interests

(c) is NOT with human remains, animal experiments, or culturally sensitive items of material culture

(d) is NOT environmentally damaging or humanly intrusive

(e) is NOT with precariously positioned subjects who are likely to be damaged by the research (e.g. asylum seekers) OR indigenous groups who have expressed a public antagonism to academic research; (f) does NOT require password for entry or proper certification (to regulated web-sites, for example)

2. ‘Medium-High risk’ ethically speaking is defined by UCL REC to include research that:

(a) is illegal or interfaces with criminal or illegal practice

(b) is with ‘vulnerable’ subjects whose circumstances may make it difficult to judge whether the research could be damaging to their person or best interests (e.g. patients; juniors; asylum seekers; people who are emotionally and cognitively challenged; prisoners; politically precarious persons)

(c) is with human remains, animal experiments, or culturally sensitive items of material culture

(e) is environmentally damaging or humanly intrusive)

(e) is with indigenous groups who have publically expressed antagonism to anthropological and other academic research

(g) requires password for entry or proper certification (to regulated web-sites, for example)

FAQ on other important procedures

1. Do I submit directly to the UCL REC?

No. If you do fill out a UCL REC form (with your supervisor), send it electronically for feedback and signature to the Chair of the Departmental Ethics Committee.

2. When do I submit through the UCL REC? Is there a deadline?

Medium-High risk research must be routed through the Department to the UCL REC committee where it may be subject to Chair’s Action OR may have to pass through committee. If the research is medium to high risk but with non-vulnerable subjects, Chair’s Action may be requested any time during the academic calendar. If the research is with vulnerable subjects it must pass through committee and be submitted by one of the several deadlines indicated on the UCL REC website.

3. Is it sufficient to gain ethics approval only in the UK?

No! You have to gain ethical approval for your research in the UK (in UCL) but also submit your research for approval in an appropriate institution abroad. This may be in – or in consultation with - a University abroad to which you have affiliated, or with the organisation (e.g. NGO) that is sponsoring your research, or it may be a process tied up with the granting of your visa. When your overseas clearance comes through, you should send a copy to the Departmental Office. If in doubt, contact the UCL REC directly via their website.

4. Is a DBS (a criminal records check) required in addition to ethical approval?

It is definitely required where a sponsoring or collaborating organisation requires the check. UCL REC also requires a DBS check for all research with ‘vulnerable’ subjects. The grey area concerns participant-observation in ‘open’ communities where, even though research is not focused upon minors (i.e. under-age children and adolescents), the researcher will inevitably spend unsupervised time with under-age individuals and groups. In this situation, it is undoubtedly wise to undergo a DBS check in order to strengthen your claims that your open-ended method is ethically robust.

5. What happens if I conduct research without ethical approval?

UCL deems that research that has been carried out without formal ethical approval be disqualified and be ineligible for either examination or publication under UCL’s name. Hence, apply well in advance and delay fieldwork until approval is gained.

Research Ethics and Risk Committee
UCL Anthropology 2015