Research integrity


Sensitive Research

Researchers have a duty to consider carefully the risks and consequences associated with their research. Research that is classed as ‘sensitive’ carries with it particular risks that need to be managed, with particular consideration being given to the potential consequences of these risks. This includes risks and consequences for;

  • individual researchers;
  • research participants;
  • individuals, groups, communities connected either with the research participants or the research topic/focus;
  • the reputation of UCL and its researchers.

It is important therefore that, in order to minimise the impact/consequences for the individuals/groups concerned, researchers undertaking sensitive research consider beforehand what potential risks may arise from the research, to whom and how these risks could be removed, reduced or best managed.  UCL considers the following to be classed as ‘sensitive research’ (this list is not definitive).

Definition of sensitive research

Assessing potential risks

The first thing to consider is what the potential risks might be, how they could arise and who they would or could affect.  Risks can arise as a natural result or as a consequence of the research.  Risks arising as a direct result of the research can include;

- Risk of harm to researchers due to the location the research is being undertaken in (unsafe locations, lone working, etc.) or due to the research methods being used or topic being researched.

- Risk of harm (physical, physiological or emotional) to participants during data collection (being interviewed about past or current traumatic events), or the risk could arise after they have finished their participation in the research.

- Risk to individuals, groups or communities not participating in the research, but who could be impacted due to the topic being researched, or because of information provided by research participants/through data collection; for example risk of persecution or harm to reputation.

Risks can also arise as a consequence of the research being undertaken and/or published.  Consequential risks can be harder to manage as they relate to the actions or reactions of the outside world, however, it is important that these potential risks are identified and planned for at an early stage, in order that the risks of harm can be managed and mitigated properly. For example;

- After a paper on a highly emotive or political topic is published, the authors could be at risk of a backlash or personal attack from individuals or groups, such as activists or ‘hate’ groups. 

- The results of research could be taken and used by others with the intent of causing harm, e.g. biolomedical research being used to create biological weapons.  This is often referred to as dual use - see misuse of research below.

Likelihood & Impact

The next stage is to consider what the likelihood is of the risk occurring and how serious the impact could be.  The aim of research is to be of benefit to society, with the benefit outweighing any risks associated with the research.  It is important therefore, to consider and to plan for any potential risks, even if the potential for the risk occurring is small; especially if the resulting impact of the risk is severe.  It also helps to ensure that any risks can be manged appropriately should they arise.

Things to consider 

Misuse of research
Information Security
Data Protection
Data Safe Haven
Ethical Approval
UCL Safety Services