Research Integrity


Human Research Ethics

All research (unless exempted) conducted with living human participants and the collection and/or study of data derived from living human participants undertaken by UCL students and staff (to include honorary staff, affiliate academics and visiting researchers) on UCL premises or elsewhere, requires ethical approval to ensure that the research conforms with general ethical principles and standards.  Ethical approval must be obtained before the commencement of data collection.

Do I need ethical approval?

You can find more information about exemptions on the UCL Research Ethics Service website. It is important to note that if your study is exempt from UCL ethical review this does not mean it is automatically exempt from external ethical review (see below).

Where to obtain ethics approval from?

Ethical approval should be sought through one of the following routes depending on the nature of the research. Remember that ethics approval cannot be granted retrospectively so make sure you obtain one, if needed, before you start data collection. If you are not sure, seek advice.

UCL ethics review

There are two routes to ethical approval at UCL: 

  • UCL Research Ethics Committee -The UCL Research Ethics Committee (UCL REC) is the central UCL research ethics committee and is responsible for reviewing most (non-NHS) ethics applications across UCL, including all high-risk applications.
  • UCL local Ethics Committee -There are a number of faculties/departments that have their own ethics systems and committees in place and it is important that you understand what your local arrangement is when planning your application.
To find out more information see UCL Research Ethics Service.
Human Tissue Act 2004

Under the Human Tissue Act 2004 (HT Act 2004) studies involving relevant material derived from human remains that are from people who died less than 100 years ago, must be stored on a licensed premises unless ethical approval has been granted by a 'recognised' ethics committee.  University ethics committees are not 'recognised' ethics committees and so researchers will usually need to apply to an NHS ethics committee via the IRAS system.  Researchers seeking to access samples from a Biobank that has been granted generic ethical approval, provided the study meets their conditions of approval, the study will be considered to have ethical approval.

The Human Tissue Authority provide helpful Codes of Practice, and Code E: Research has helpful guidance for researchers including a flowchart showing consent and licensing requirements.

Researchers storing samples under a human tissue license do not need to apply to a 'recognised' ethics committee for ethical approval.  However, UCL researchers will still require ethical approval for the research and therefore will need to apply to the UCL Research Ethics Committee (or UCL Local Research Ethics Committee).   This is because at UCL all research (unless exempted) requires ethical approval.

Non-relevant material

Studies involving samples (i.e. serum, DNA etc) that are not classed as relevant material do not need to be stored under a HTA licence. In other words, researchers do not require a HTA storage licence under the HT Act 2004, if their research i) involves acellular material only (i.e. serum or DNA) or ii) if the cellular material (i.e. blood) is rendered acellular immediately and only serum is stored for research. 

Studies involving prospective recruitment of participants and collection of relevant material (i.e. blood samples etc.) may need to be approved by a 'recognised' ethics committee. Studies that do not involve prospective recruitment and only involve existing acellular material can be ethically approved through the UCL ethics system as mentioned previously. 

In summary there are three options for ethical approval depending on your study:

  • A 'recognised' ethics committee (generally NHS ethical approval) - all studies falling under the remit of the HT Act 2004 (relevant material) unless stored under the governance of a HTA storage license
  • A Biobank ethics committee - for studies applying to use samples from a Biobank with generic ethical approval
  • A UCL Research Ethics Committee - for all studies that are not covered by ethical approval from a 'recognised' ethics committee or Biobank

For more information on requirements related to holding human remains more than 100 years old see ‘Museums, heritage and cultural collections’ pages.

    External ethics review

    Some research requires ethical review via an external ethics committee and cannot be reviewed by university committees: 

    • NHS Research Ethics Review: any research that involves NHS patients and carers, invasive research involving prisoners or adults lacking capacity, a Clinical Trial of an Investigational Medicinal Product or human tissue (see above). Guidance is available on the NHS Health Research Authority (HRA) website including a checklist and decision tool.
    • Social Care Research Ethics Committee (SCREC): ethical approval is required through SCREC for social care research projects funded by the Department of Health.
    • Ministry of Defence Research Ethics Committee (MoDREC): ethical approval is required through MoDREC for research involving human participants either undertaken, funded, or sponsored by MOD in order to meet nationally and internationally accepted ethical standards.
    Collaborative research within UK

    For UCL staff or student researchers involved as co-researchers on a project led by a Principal Investigator (PI) from another UK university and ethics approval has been granted by that institution (with the UCL co-researcher named on the application along with an account of their role on the project), provided that a UK university is the sponsor for the project (taking responsibility for the whole study), then additional ethical approval through the UCL REC will not be required.
    The co-researcher must ensure that the PI gains ethical approval from his/her own institution before the commencement of data collection as well as local ethics/research permission if the study is based overseas.

    Overseas research 

    All research with human participants or using human data is expected to follow ethical requirements conforming to UK’s and the study country(ies) regulations. This means that you might need to obtain more than one ethics approval: here in UK and locally in the country where research will be carried out.
    Guidance on overseas research is available on the Overseas Research webpage. 

    After Approval 

    It is expected that all members of the research team will be aware of what the formal ethical approval covers as well as any terms and conditions of approval, which includes the date approval expires, as well as the process regarding applying for modifications to ethical approval or extensions.  To assist them in assessing the proposed changes, many committees request that a revised version of the approved application and/or attached documents also be submitted. 

    For more information see ‘Responsibilities after ethical approval’