A step-by-step guide to filling out a research ethics application as an IOE student.
At the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), all research projects by staff, student or visitors that collect or use data from human participants are subject to an ethics review before the project starts (this may include secondary data analysis and systematic reviews). It is your responsibility to ensure that ethics approval is gained prior to the start of any fieldwork.
Your application will be reviewed by your supervisor and another member of your advisory committee (PhD/MPhil/MRes/EdD) or another member of the course team (MA/UG/all other qualifications). They will add their comments and decision to your application form.
The Research Ethics Committee (REC) reviews all ethics applications from staff and visitors. The REC will only review a student’s application if the research involves particularly complicated or sensitive ethical issues, or is referred by the supervisor. The committee includes representatives from each department at the IOE as well as external and student members.
All applications should be written in terms that can be understood by a lay person, including giving explanations of any abbreviations or acronyms used.
Should your application be referred to the REC and the relevant questions/sections are not completed, your application will be returned to you to complete before it is reviewed by the committee. Where particular ethical issues are not addressed adequately the committee may request further information. This can lengthen the time it takes to get ethical approval.
The form should be completed in Microsoft Word. Text boxes will expand.
This guidance will help you complete your ethics application form section by section. If you would like any further support please contact the Research Development Administrator: IOE.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Further information can be found on our UCL Institute of Education Research Ethics Committee website.
- Section 1: project details
This section provides the Research Ethics Committee reviewers and IOE’s administrators with all the background details of your project to ensure it is considered by the right members of staff.
If you are receiving any funding for your research, include details here. If you do have funding this is normally confirmed for a project before the ethics review process, unless you choose to request an earlier review, or a specific funder requires an earlier review. If there is more than one funder please state here.
Reviewers will be able to consider whether the funding source presents any ethical concerns. In addition, different funders may have different ethical review requirements for you to consider.
The project’s start date may precede ethical approval, however no fieldwork should begin until approval has been received.
Ethical approval will cover your research as outlined in the application form for the duration you state.
Country fieldwork will be conducted in
If you are conducting your research abroad you will need to give details here and provide further information later in the form under Research Methods Summary (section 2) and Ethical Issues (section 8). It is important that you discuss working abroad with your supervisor as early as possible. Please note that not all travel will be authorised by the IOE.
If you are travelling overseas you must fill out UCL’s travel insurance form and send it to the named contact in UCL Insurance.
Please check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) website for travel advice and confirm the status they give to the country you intend to travel to. If you are planning to visit a country or city where the FCO advises against all travel the IOE will not normally sanction your travel.
If the FCO advises against all but essential travel, you must discuss this with your supervisor and provide written justification of your travel plans. Alongside this insurance form you must supply a detailed account of how the risks associated with your travel are going to be mitigated.
There is further information regarding field work risk assessment on UCL's Off-site Working guidance. However, as section 8 of the ethics form already covers this you are not required to complete the full risk assessment form the UCL Safety team provides.
External research ethics committees
If the proposal has gone through another rigorous ethics review process, it does not need to be reviewed again by the IOE’s Research Ethics Committee.
This is most likely to occur when your research project has been reviewed through the NHS system (Integrated Research Application System) or another university’s ethics review process (where they are the lead investigators). If this is the case, please provide information about any external ethical approval you have received for our records. If your project has been reviewed elsewhere you do not need to complete Sections 2-8.
You will need to send a copy of the ethics approval notice to your supervisor and local administrator.
Research requiring external ethical approval
Not all research at the IOE can be ethically approved by the Research Ethics Committee; some must be ethically reviewed by other specialist ethics committees.
- Research involving NHS patients, service uses (those using NHS services) and NHS premises must be ethically approved by the NHS Research Ethics Service (RES). Please note the following exceptions: research involving NHS or social care staff recruited as research participants by virtue of their professional role does not usually require NHS ethical approval and so should be submitted to the IOE’s Research Ethics Committee. Research activities defined by NRES as not requiring ethics review within the NRES processes include audit and service evaluation.
- Under the Mental Capacity Act 2005 (MCA 2005), any research that proposes to involve the recruitment of participants aged 16 and above who lack capacity to consent to take part in the research or who later lose capacity during the research must have ethical approval by a recognised appropriate body such as the Social Care Research Ethics Committee or certain National Research Ethics Service Research Ethics Committees.
- Social research funded by the Department of Health and therefore requiring review by the Social Care Research Ethics Committee (SCREC).
- Research which involves human participants, and which is funded or sponsored by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) must secure approval from the MOD Research Ethics Committee (MODREC).
- Research that involves prisons, youth offending or probation services requires approval through the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) or NHS committee.
- Section 2: research methods summary
In this section you will need to enable the reviewers to fully comprehend the scope of your research project. This should include clear information on the aims and any supporting research, the rationale and justification for the research, the study design (including data collection and methods of analysis) as well as a justification for all of the research methods to be used and the topics/questions presented to participants. In order to assist the reviewers in understanding the project, ensure that your explanation is written in lay language and that any acronyms or abbreviations are clearly explained.
Please ensure you tick all of the methods that will be used in your research and follow the directions for which section to complete next. This information enables the reviewers to consider the extent of the ethical issues that may arise depending on methods.
You should attach a copy of the questionnaires or interview schedules you will be using.
- Section 3: research participants
Most research projects at the UCL Institute of Education are likely to have human participants, but not all. For example, if a literature review is a project in its own right (rather than one component of a wider project) there may be no human participants.
For research where there are participants, please ensure that you tick all relevant boxes. Research participants are those from whom you are collecting data (i.e. through questionnaires, interviews, focus groups or observation) as well as those whose personal data may be used (including for secondary analysis) and participants in action research. Not all research will involve direct interaction with participants.
Research involving children
Ensure that you are clear on the ages of the children involved and provide more detailed information in sections 2 and 8.
Research involving adults
Describe them briefly (e.g. teachers, parents, adult learners, patients) and provide more information under sections 2 and 8.
Research involving unknown participants
If you do not yet know who the participants will be, tick the ‘unknown’ box and explain clearly why this is.
Research involving vulnerable participants
If you intend to conduct research with vulnerable participants (such as those in care, children, people in custody, participants with mental health difficulties) this should be covered in the ethical issues section.
- Section 4: security-sensitive material
Some projects may collect or encounter security-sensitive research material. This may be more likely if your project is within any of the following categories:
- Commissioned by the military;
- Commissioned under a European Union (or other) security programme;
- Involve the acquisition of security clearances;
- Concerns terrorist or extreme groups.
If your project will involve security-sensitive material, please provide further details in Section 8 Ethical Issues. Once your application has been received, you will be asked to provide more information and you may be required to follow specific data storage and other practices.
- Section 5: systematic reviews of research
A systematic review is a literature review that asks one or more specific research questions. It uses systematic and explicit research methods to review relevant research in relation to these research questions.
In a systematic review, the findings of existing research studies themselves become raw data for analysis and interpretation. These data usually come from reports and information that are already in the public domain, for example published theses, papers and other publications.
Systematic reviews are often considered to have a low risk of potential harm. The following points might be helpful in judging this for your own project:
Systematic reviews are often conducted alongside some form of consultation
If you intend to collect new data from people alongside your review of the literature, such as by the use of focus groups, you should consider the ethical concerns that could arise, e.g. if you plan to report what individual people say, and you should complete the rest of the application form with this in mind.
Will you be contacting the original research team?
If you require clarification on certain matters and decide to contact the original research team you should consider what issues may arise from this. Will this only be clarification or will new data be obtained? Is there the potential for a breach of participant confidentiality?
- Systematic reviews that are not collecting any new data or analysing secondary data are not required to complete the ethical issues section (Section 8 Ethical issues). This light touch approach is appropriate where the potential for risk of harm to participants and others affected by the research is minimal.
- Section 6: secondary data analysis
Secondary data analysis is eligible for light touch review if the following criteria are met:
- the appropriate permissions have been gained;
- the data have been or will be anonymised;
- ‘technical and organisational measures’ to ensure that they process only the personal data necessary for the research purposes, in particular ensuring compliance with the principle of data minimisation, e.g. the use of pseudonymisation, are put in place
- the processing is not carried out of the purposes of measures or decisions with respect to a data subject (except in the context of ‘approved medical research’); and
- the processing is not likely to cause substantial damage or distress to an individual;
- the analysis is within the remit the data was collected for.
This light touch approach is appropriate where the potential for risk of harm to participants and others affected by the research is minimal. Approval of these applications is confirmed by the Chair or Deputy of the Research Ethics Committee.
A full review is necessary where the data are:
- sensitive or may infringe an individual’s privacy;
- ‘special category personal data’ under data protection legislation;
- at individual level; and
- to be linked to an individual or identification is reasonably likely.
Special category personal data mean personal data consisting of information relating to:
- data which reveals racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical beliefs, trade union membership;
- data concerning health (the physical or mental health of a person, including the provision of health care services);
- data concerning sex life or sexual orientation; or
- genetic or biometric data processed to uniquely identify a natural person. Note: Collecting and using special category personal data requires a further basis (meaning a specific justification) under GDPR Article 9(2) and the Data Protection Act 2018.
UCL’s view is that the most appropriate legal basis to rely upon when processing ‘special category personal data’ for research purposes is Article 9(2)(j), i.e. where the processing is necessary for archiving purposes in the public interest, scientific or historical research purposes or statistical purposes.
Reliance on this condition requires UCL to ensure that the processing meets the public interest test and ‘appropriate safeguards’ are in place. These ‘appropriate safeguards’ include:
- using ‘technical and organisational measures’ to ensure data minimisation, e.g. pseudonymisation;
- using anonymised data where possible;
- not processing in ways that are likely to cause substantial damage or distress to individuals;
- not supporting measures or decisions with respect to individuals; and
- having the assurance that research ethics committee approval is in place where needed.
- Section 7: data storage and security
In this section you will need to explain how data will be stored and managed both during and after the research, as well as who will have access to the data. This must be provided so that UCL can register all projects that are collecting or using data from human participants. The registration process for students is managed by the Data Protection team at UCL (email@example.com). The Research Development Administrator will liaise with the team on your behalf.
The questions in section 7f ask you to confirm that you have appropriate organisation and technical measures in place to ensure security for the data you are using in compliance with data protection legislation.
In addition, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has a very helpful, plain English guide to GDPR (The Guide to Data Protection) that breaks down each principle and provides examples.
Data security and sharing
Please ensure that you address the following in relation to all hard copy and electronic data:
- How and where will the data be stored both during and after the research?
- How will you ensure the safety and security of the data?
- How will you prevent accidental disclosure – e.g. by encryption of data on laptops, not taking printed confidential materials out of premises, storing files in locked cabinets in locked rooms?
- Who will have access to the data both during and after the study? This includes, for example, transcribers.
- Will you be collecting ‘special category’ data as defined by data protection legislation (see secondary data analysis section above)? What steps have you taken to ensure that only special category personal data which is necessary to the research is collected?
- How long will such data be kept for? Please clarify what data will be destroyed, when and how, as well as what data will be retained.
- If data are to be retained, please clarify for what purpose, such as for further analysis and/or archiving.
General data security guidance
All devices that have access to the internet can be targeted by hackers and malware programmes, therefore it is important that all devices used have antivirus software installed. It is important to ensure that this is regularly updated. It is advisable to also ensure the firewall on your device is turned on for additional protection.
Many people use personal devices such as home computers and laptops for work purposes and it is important to ensure that the data on these devices are secure. The device should be password protected and if others have access to the device, such as other family members, it is best practice to create different users so that only you have access to the data. You should also consider password protecting those files.
Personal devices can be stolen or lost and so it is good practice to only store what is necessary on them. If you no longer need data then this should be removed. In addition, if you decide to sell or gift your laptop for example, you should ensure that all data has been wiped from the device. Deleting files is not enough as it is possible to still recover the data so you should look at wiping software to ensure that no data remains.
Wifi and public internet access
Though your personal device such as a laptop may have antivirus software to protect it you should be careful on how you access the internet. For example, wifi available in cafes and other stores are likely to be targeted and so it is advised that you do not use these options. Private password protected wifi options are best.
Never use public computers such as internet cafes or those available in other stores or airports to access data as these systems are not secure and could easily leave the data open to attack from viruses or use by others.
Please visit the UCL Information Security Group for further guidance on all security issues.
- Section 8: ethical issues
In this section consider the issues that may arise in this research and how you will manage them. Please ensure your answer to this section is written in terms understandable to a lay person.
To assist you, a list of issues that you may need to consider has been included in the application form at the start of the section. This list is not exhaustive, nor will every issue apply to every project. It is intended to help you think about things which may happen, and to help Research Ethics Committee members to review your proposal.
When completing the application form, certain answers/sections specifically asked you to address the issues raised in Ethical Issues section. Please ensure that all of these are addressed there.
Participants and recruitment
- Who you intend to collect data from and how
- Who the potential participants are and how you will identify them
- How you will approach potential participants
- Any approvals / necessary permissions (such as from gatekeepers) and how these will be managed
If you are planning to carry out research in regulated Education environments such as schools, or if your research will bring you into contact with children and young people (under the age of 18), or adults classed as vulnerable, you will need to have a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check before you start. The DBS was previously known as the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB). If you do not already hold a current DBS check, and have not registered with the DBS update service, you will need to obtain one through UCL.
- Further information can be found in UCL DBS Checks and Criminal Convictions Policy
- How will you inform participants about the research and gain their informed consent to participate?
- If you do not intend to gain informed consent, please explain why.
- How will you inform children about the research? Have you ensured that the consent form is easy to understand for children of this age?
- You are requested to attach copies of information leaflets etc. which you intend to use – if you do not intend to use information leaflets, please explain why not.
- How will you document participants’ consent?
- Will you need to get consent from participants on more than one occasion, or only at the outset of the project?
- Have you gained consent for future use of data?
Observation is a method which raises a variety of ethical issues depending on the individual nature of the research and observation. One of the more prominent issues is whether you as the researchers will seek consent (from gatekeepers and/or individuals) for the observation, though the possible issues that could arise go beyond issues of consent.
Best practice is that informed consent should be obtained from all participants in advance of the observation. However, it is recognised that there may be occasions when this is not feasible or appropriate. As the researcher you should ask yourself why, in such circumstances, it is not appropriate to seek informed consent from participants. One possible example could be that the observation is taking place in a public space and it is not possible to obtain consent from all those being observed.
Even where it may not be possible to seek consent, this does not preclude you as the researcher informing those involved that observation is taking place. Could you place signs in the area to let people know that observational research is taking place, or if the research is taking place in a specific company, could you arrange for an email to all staff to inform them ahead of time about the observation?
This would allow those who do not wish to be included to either avoid the area or to inform you as researcher that they do not wish to be included.
There may be situations where it is not appropriate to inform participants either in full or at all about the study as it may either affect the behaviour of participants and/or make it impossible to collect the data. In which case, is it possible to seek consent for the use of the data after it has been collected? For example, in psychological experiments you may need to have an element of deception in order to test the hypothesis, and so after the data has been collected it would be expected that you would debrief participants; explaining the deception and reasons for it and then seek their consent again based on this new information.
The ESRC Framework for Research Ethics (Updated January 2015, page 31-2) states that:
““Covert research may be undertaken when it may provide unique forms of evidence that are crucial to the research objectives and methodology or where overt observation might alter the phenomenon being studied. The broad principle should be that covert research should not be undertaken lightly or routinely. It is only justified if important issues are being addressed and if matters of social significance which cannot be uncovered in other ways are likely to be discovered.
Normally, social scientists should ensure that research participants are aware of and consent to arrangements made with regard to the management and security of data, the preservation of anonymity, and any risk that might arise during or beyond the project itself, and how these might be minimised or avoided. Disciplinary professional ethics codes may be helpful here. Where the research design is such that valid consent cannot be obtained from participants before data is gathered, REC review of the protocol should take place at the highest level. Wherever practically possible participants should be fully debriefed about the true aims and objectives of the research and given the opportunity to withdraw their data from the study (e.g. experimental studies involving deception).
Researchers should also ensure they have received the relevant permission from gatekeepers where necessary to undertake the research, for example from the relevant public sector organisation to undertake research on public sector property.”
Studies such as these must apply to the Research Ethics Committee for ethical approval, including studies conducted by students.
When seeking to recruit participants the most often used approach is opt-in sampling. This means that following receipt of information about the research (such as information sheets/letters) the potential participants take an active step in agreeing to participate. This is often in the form of returning signed consent forms or completed questionnaires, for example:
- Information sheets sent to potential participants
- Signed consent form/completed questionnaire(s) returned to researcher
- Individual included in research as participant
- Information sheets sent to potential participants
- No response received, returned unsigned or incomplete
- Individual not included in the research
Using this approach, if you need to seek additional approval from parents/carers or gatekeepers such as schools, you need to wait until this permission has been given before approaching individuals/collecting data. An example process for this is below.
- Information sheets sent to parent(s) or carer(s) or child
- Parent/carer returns signed consent form
- Consent form discussed with child
- Child agrees to take part in the research
- Data collection begins
- Information sheets sent to parent(s) or carer(s) or child
- Parent/carer does not return signed consent form or returns unsigned
- Child is not included in the research
Another method that is used is opt-out sampling, whereby information is sent to all potential participants and gatekeepers/parents as above, but researchers deem participants to have agreed to take part unless they specifically state otherwise.
- Information sheet sent to potential participants
- No response received
- Individual included in research as participant
- Information sheet sent to potential participants
- Individual contacts researcher to refuse
- Individual not included in research as participant
A further example of the process for studies involving children using the opt-out method for parental consent is below.
- Information sheets sent to parent/s or carer and child
- No response received from parent/carer
- Child agrees to take part in the research
- Child is included in research as participant
- Information sheets sent to parent/s or carer and child
- Parent/carer contacts researcher to refuse permission for their child to be included
- Child not included in the research
Choosing opt-in or opt-out
It is recognised that using the opt-in sampling method can lead to lower response rates and potentially a less representative sample of participants, such as those in the harder to reach areas. It can be for such reasons that a researcher may choose to adopt an opt-out approach instead.
Both methods are accepted by ethics committees, and the researcher will need to decide which the most appropriate method for their particular research is. If you choose to use opt-out sampling, the reason for doing so would need to be explained in the ethics application.
Many committees will prefer the use of opt-in as one of the principles of informed consent is that participants must participant willingly and without coercion (see the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics) and using opt-in sampling helps to demonstrate this with the active step participants and gatekeepers need to take in order to show their agreement to participate. Those that do not take that step are simply excluded from the study as their consent has not been given. In addition, if participants do not wish to take part they do not need to take an active step in order to do this, they can simply not respond. On the other hand, opt-out requires individuals to actively refuse to participate, which some may feel unable to so and may feel some pressure to participate.
For example, are potential participants being asked to indicate their refusal to participate as a group (and so publically indicating their refusal), or through an organisation they are working for or seeking services from? Consider also the relationship of the gatekeepers and whether their involvement could lead to possible participants feeling pressured to accept. There are, by its very nature, more ethical implications to be considered for opt-out sampling than opt-in and these would need to be addressed in the ethics application.
The decision to use opt-in or opt-out consent should be made on the basis of appropriateness for your study. In both cases all relevant parties must still be provided with clear and detailed information regarding the study, as would normally be expected in ensuring informed consent. The differences lie in the process for taking or assuming consent.
Research with children
Benefits of the research
- Who will benefit from this research?
- How will participants benefit, now or in the future?
- Who else might benefit, now or in the future?
- Will you offer participants financial incentives (e.g. shopping vouchers, entry in a prize draw) to take part in the research? If so, how much will you offer and how will you ensure that the payment does not unduly influence their decision to take part and their responses to your questions?
- Will you offer to meet participants’ expenses (e.g. travel costs, child care costs) to take part in the research?
Risks of the research
- Please address any risks that may arise for participants as a result of participation, and how these will be managed. ‘Risks’ includes physical, mental and emotional risks, including distress.
- Where sensitive topics/events that are likely to cause distress are part of data collection, please clarify the experience of the researcher/s concerned in managing these.
- Clarify whether there are any risks for the researchers, such as working alone in a hazardous place, and describe how these will be addressed.
- Are there risks to anyone else?
Anonymised data, pseudonymised data and disclosure
- What personal data will be anonymised and how will this be done?
- Will personal data be pseudonymised?
- What level of anonymity or confidentiality will you promise the participants and how will this be guaranteed?
- Is the nature of the research (such as topics to be discussed) likely to divulge information that could necessitate disclosure to other parties, for instance issues relating to child protection? If so, clarify the possible foreseen issues and describe how these will be addressed and how participants will be informed of the potential for disclosure.
- Who will you inform about the findings of the research, and how?
- Will you tell participants about the results? If so how will this be done?
Research outside the UK
- If the work involves data collection outside the UK, are there any special issues arising because of the country/ies where the work takes place? Issues might include different values and traditions which affect approaches to gaining informed consent, and making arrangements for speakers of other languages.
- Are there additional permissions/authorisations that need to be obtained? This includes any local ethical approvals.
- If research is to be conducted abroad please check the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and UCL's International Travel Policy & Procedures for full details on the processes to be followed, including completing and submitting a full risk assessment form.
Please note, that not all travel will be authorised by the IOE.
- Section 9: further information
Use this section to set out any further information relating to your project you wish to have considered by the reviewers.
- Section 10: attachments
You are required to attach all necessary supporting documents to your application, in particular copies of any external ethical approval (if applicable) and recruitment documents such as information sheets and consent forms. If these are not available please state the reason.
Please note that attachments relating to the recruitment of participants (where the research involves participants) are essential for review and so applications submitted without these may not be reviewed until they have been submitted.
Specific guidance on writing information sheets and consent forms is available on the IOE's Research Ethics student pages, but in summary they should:
- cover all aspects of the research;
- be clear and comprehensible (including translations if applicable);
- include contact details for the researcher;
- clearly state that participants can withdraw at any time, without reason and without any impact on them;
- be clear about what will happen to their data if they decide to withdraw;
- be provided to participants in advance to give them sufficient time to consider all the information before giving their consent.
- Section 11: declaration
Finally, you will need to sign and date the declaration to confirm that:
- this information is correct to the best of your knowledge;
- this is a full description of the ethical issues that may arise in the course of this project; and
- you have read, understood and will abide by the chosen set of guidelines.
Code of ethics
State which code will govern the project. You do not have to be a member of the society in question to follow its ethics code. A project team may be multidisciplinary and have members who personally follow different codes: you must decide which code will apply for this project and record that on the form.
Please submit your completed ethics form and attachments to your supervisor for review.
Your application will be reviewed by your supervisor and another member of your advisory committee (PhD/MPhil/MRes/EdD) or another member of the course team (all other qualifications). They will add their comments and decision to your application form.
The three types of decisions that could be made are as follows:
The reviewers are satisfied that all ethical issues have been addressed.
Referred back to applicant/approved subject to the following measures
Further information or amendments will be requested before approval can be issued. This may also include major changes to the research design if these are considered necessary. Students should address these urgently and submit their response with any supporting documentation as soon as possible. This is then resubmitted for further consideration by the reviewers.
Referred to the Research Ethics Committee (REC) for review
Student projects can be referred to the Research Ethics Committee for ethical review if they involve particularly complicated or sensitive ethical issues, and this is felt to be necessary by the supervisor. Examples of ethical issues that may require referral to the REC can be found on the ethics pages of the IOE Research Ethics Committee website.
You are responsible for the ethical conduct of your research and should notify the reviewers if any of the following occur:
- A complaint of any kind from any person involved or affected by your research. These may include parents/carers, gatekeepers, junior researchers and also members of the group being researched who may be adversely affected by the research reports.
- Changes in the research design, instruments, setting or participants.
- Any other events during the course of the research which give rise to ethical concerns.
Please note that changes to the design of your project can raise new ethical issues and as such require review.
The Research Development Administrator should also be informed either by yourself or your supervisor of any complaint: firstname.lastname@example.org