Ethics are central to all research projects. Within the history department, the type of research that most commonly requires ethical approval is oral history interviewing. This page gives guidance on the process, tailored for oral history projects.
The Purpose of Ethical Review
The purpose of the ethical review process is to ensure that each researcher thinks through the possible benefits and harms – particularly to participants in the research – that might arise from undertaking a research project, and mitigates the risk of harm as much as possible.
The most common form of research that history students (and staff) undertake which requires ethical review is oral history interviewing. Other history projects may require ethical review, too, though: check the UCL Research Ethics Committee guidance on ethics if you are unsure.
This page offers guidance on the current ethics review process tailored for oral history projects. You will also need to look at the general guidance from the UCL Research Ethics Committee where needed.
UCL Research Ethics Committee guidance is here: https://ethics.grad.ucl.ac.uk/.
Some projects are currently exempt from needing ethical approval. Check on the UCL Research Ethics webpages to see if this applies to your project. You will still need to think about ethics (with your supervisor), but you do not need to complete an application form.
The UCL Research Ethics Committee offers guidance on what projects are low risk, and what projects are high risk – you will need to read this guidance. Your supervisor will also offer advice. Most student oral history projects are low risk. They do not involve working with vulnerable groups like children; they do not involve deceiving interviewees or inducing anxiety or stress.
Oral history projects often ask about “sensitive topics” (such as participants’ sexual behaviour, their political behaviour, or their gender or ethnic status) and/or “special category data” (such as religious beliefs, trade union memberships, or health). Asking about such topics can make a research project “high risk”. However, usually, student oral history projects do not inquire about these topics in contexts or ways that are particularly high risk.
For example, an oral history project about LGBT people in 1990s London might ask about what gay clubs they went to but not probe specific sexual practices. The latter might be high risk. The former is likely to be low risk. Think carefully about the social and cultural context, and the precise nature of the topics you are exploring. How much of a risk is there that discussing this part of their life might impact negatively in any way on the participant? If the risk is small, the project is probably low risk.
Gaining ethical approval for a “high risk” research project is a more lengthy process. Therefore, for student projects, you may want to think about how you ensure your project is framed so that you remain within the “low risk” category.
Even where your project is “low risk” there are sometimes delays to the process of gaining approval from the UCL Research Ethics Committee. So get your application in as early as possible, particularly if you are on a taught programme.
Students should plan their research project and their ethical approval applications with their research supervisor.
- First, determine if your application is low risk or high risk.
- The documents below offer templates and guidance to help you complete the low risk application. If your project is high risk, you need to use the documents and guidance from the UCL Research Ethics Committee website for high risk applications. (https://ethics.grad.ucl.ac.uk/)
- Next, complete the application form and associated documents.
- Now submit your application to the UCL History Ethics Committee: History.Ethics@ucl.ac.uk
- Your application will be assigned to a “lead” committee member who will review your application and may ask for changes. They may ask other committee members for their insights. When the “lead” committee member is satisfied they will sign off your application. Low risk applications will be signed off as suitable for Chair’s Action – quicker approval by the Chair of the UCL Research Ethics Committee. High risk applications will be signed off as ready to go to a full meeting of the UCL Research Ethics Committee.
- When your application is signed off, you can submit it to the UCL Research Ethics Committee. (For details go to their website: https://ethics.grad.ucl.ac.uk/.)
If you are planning to conduct online interviews, you need to read the UCL REC guidance here: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/research/integrity/ethics/research-human-participants/guidance-research-and-ethical-approval-light-covid-19-pandemic. You may well need to pay particular attention to the sections ‘Online interviews or focus groups’ and ‘Data management and security’.