All research involving humans carries some degree of risk. Even if the risk is very small or even negligible, it is important to always consider if the research you are doing raises issues related to privacy, equality, diversity, health and safety. A researcher must, therefore, consider the ethical implications of any work that:
- has the potential to damage the mental or physical health of human participants, (e.g. volunteers, UCL staff and students) or others who may be affected
- has the potential to jeopardise the safety of people affected by the research (e.g. volunteers working in sensitive situations or abroad)
- has the potential to compromise the privacy of individuals whose data is involved in the work
- involves methods (e.g. genetic research, interviews, questionnaires, randomised control trial) or subject matter (e.g. recreational and controlled drugs, human impact on the environment) that are sensitive and therefore need to be managed consistently with UCL’s high public reputation
- has the potential for environmental impact
- carries a risk of an actual or perceived conflict of interest on the part of researchers and/or the College
Accepted ethical standards
There are a number of ethical standards that have been accepted throughout the UK and abroad which all researchers and ethical committees are expected to comply with. [Click the headings to expand and read the guidance.]
- 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 is required of all participants in a research study, except where there is a justification for covert research or deception (such cases will be considered on an individual basis by the ethics committee).
- 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.
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.
Why is ethical review important?
The aim of ethical review is primarily to protect participants. They are a valuable part of the research process both directly and indirectly and therefore it is essential that they, and their data, be treated with due care and respect. Being ‘ethical’ means acting in accordance with a set of core values and principles, in particular, integrity, compliance with the law, respect for human rights and avoiding unnecessary risk to people’s safety and well-being. The UCL REC seeks to ensure that any potential ethical risks arising from research are limited and are strictly in proportion to the importance of the intended benefits.
Another aim of ethical review is to protect you as the researcher. In addition, careful consideration of research ethics principles and potential risks can help inform your research methods or increase participant recruitment, and as a result, enhance the quality of your research.
If ethical approval is not obtained when it should have prior to commencement of a study (not including exempt projects):
- There is the risk of harm to participants (either directly or indirectly) if the risks have not been appropriately considered and/or relevant approvals obtained;
- There could be an impact on a research participant's settlement in the event of a claim and could damage UCL's insurance profile. the individual researcher bears personal responsibility for any claim.
- Funders are unlikely to provide support for your research;
- Publishers are unlikely to accept your results for publication;
- It could amount to research misconduct (see UCL’s procedure for investigating and resolving allegations of misconduct in academic research and may lead to disciplinary action.
It is expected therefore that all studies that require ethical approval have that approval in place before the research begins.
Page last updated: September 2021