FOCUS ON: ETHICS

Thanks to Catherine Wynn (Quality and Operations Officer, University of Sheffield) and Dr Alice Temple (Research Training Senior Training & Development Officer, University of Leeds) for texts and information. 

A Brief Review of Research Ethics

P1000795In all research, it is important to act ethically and with integrity and the White Rose Universities expect that their students act in this way throughout their studies.  Indeed, being able to think and act ethically and with integrity is an important transferable skill, with many employers stating their expectation that their employees have integrity.

The importance of Research Ethics has been rapidly developing since World War 2 with the Nuremburg Code (1949) and Declaration of Helsinki (1964).  These originally covered the area of medical experimentation but have subsequently been applied to research involving humans, or their data.

The profile of ethical considerations and the need for processes for its application across University based research have risen further in prominence from the late 1990s (following events such as the Alder Hey organ retention and the research and media attention regarding MMR injections). On a practical level, the need for ethical review of proposals is now a requirement most major research funders including the ESRC and the review process is increasingly a requirement of journals.

Each of the White Rose Universities have their own policies and procedures in relation to research ethics, however, the principles of conducting ethical research remain the same, and thorough consideration of the ethical issues at the outset of the research can also help to structure research proposals and to identify potential pitfalls early in the research process.

It would never be possible to identify all the issues which may be relevant to a researcher in the Social Sciences: there can always be a unique element to any research projects.  However, broadly thinking you should consider the following important issues.

Firstly there are overarching issues relating to any research project

  • is there enough time in the project plan: has time been allocated to gain the necessary access ethical approvals (for example NHS approval is needed for research in a Health and Social care setting)
  • Is the research and any related information understandable to the people or organisations taking part; is enough information provided in enough time for those who are to participate in the work

An Indicative (but not exhaustive) checklist of the other potential considerations could also cover:

  • Researcher Suitability: Necessary Skills/ need for Training/ Conflicts of Interest?
  • Is Participant Consent being sought? Is the method appropriate?
  • Is there going to be videoing/ recording/ transcription: how is this being stored?
  • Where will other data be stored/ for how long/ will it be used for future work?
  • Will there be any use of personal/ sensitive data?
  • How has confidentiality/ anonymity been considered?
  • Is the work ‘scientifically’ appropriate – sample size etc?
  • Are there any potential vulnerabilities (participants/ subject matter?)?
  • Is there any potential for harm (to the researcher or other participants?)

The Research ethics process is not about preventing research with associated risks but it is about ensuring that potential research outcomes are proportionate to the risk involved and that the risk is mitigated in as many ways as possible.

It is your responsibility as a Research Student to ensure that all approvals required for your work are in place, ethical approvals may be just one part of this.

For information on the Ethics Policies and requirements within the White Rose Universities please see:

There is a White Rose Research Ethics and Governance group which meets periodically to discuss issues arising and best practice. Members of this group include from Leeds Clare SkinnerJennifer Blaikie, Alice Temple, from York Anna Grey and Alice Wakely and from Sheffield Catherine Wynn.