Ethics Approval

Research conducted by staff and students in the University must abide by ethical standards that respect the integrity and well-being of those involved in it. The University’s Research Ethics Framework sets out the fundamental principles governing research ethics at the University. The HUMS Ethics Committee seeks to support research, engagement and impact work. It takes a flexible approach to different types of research and is sympathetic to disciplinary, institutional and cultural differences in what might be appropriate ethical procedure.

The advice on this page is intended for staff and students in Archaeology, Classics and Ancient History, Drama, English and Film, History, Modern Languages, and Theology and Religion. Colleagues can contact Departmental Ethics Officers or the Chair of the College of Humanities (HUMS) Ethics Committee for further information.

Ethics Committee Members

 

Submission Deadlines

The ethics review process is outlined below together with detailed information on how to prepare an ethics proposal. Templates for the proposal, participant information sheet and consent form can also be found below. The HUMS Ethics Committee meets once every term in week 5 to review and approve proposals. Proposals need to be submitted at the end of Week 3. The upcoming deadlines for proposal submissions in 2018/2019 are as follows:

  • Term 2 – 1st February 2019
  • Term 3 – 17th May 2019

In exceptional circumstances, proposals can be approved via Chair’s Action between Committee Meetings. In these cases, proposals will be reviewed by the applicant’s Departmental Ethics Officer, a second Ethics Officer and the Committee Chair. Please note that this process can take several weeks.

 

Ethics Guidance

1. Who Needs to Make an Ethics Application in the College of Humanities?

All research projects involving human participants and/or animals need to be submitted for ethical review. This often includes research carried out as part of engagement and impact activities.

Staff, PhD and Other Postgraduate Research Students

  • All staff and PhD/postgraduate research students who are engaged in funded or unfunded research with human subjects and/or animals should make an ethics submission to the HUMS Ethics Committee. Your research may involve interviews, surveys, questionnaires, observation, creative activities, etc.
  • It is the responsibility of members of staff and research students to identify where their research may raise ethical issues, familiarise themselves with the ethics procedure, and submit their work for review. If in any doubt, the first point of contact should be your Departmental Ethics Officer who will be able to advise and help you to develop your application. The names and contact details of Departmental Ethics Officers can be found above.

Undergraduate and Taught Postgraduate Students

Please note that guidelines for undergraduate and taught postgraduate students are currently being reviewed. The updated guidelines will be made available as soon as possible. In the meantime, please follow the guidance below.

  • Low-risk projects by undergraduate and taught postgraduate students can be reviewed by Departmental Ethics Officers without being discussed by the full HUMS Ethics Committee. In some cases, the Departmental Ethics Officers may choose to delegate authority to experienced supervisors or module leaders.
  • It is the responsibility of the supervisor to identify particularly sensitive or potentially risky projects that need to be submitted for ethical review by the Committee. Research that should be escalated to the Committee involves projects in which the researcher’s own safety requires careful assessment; and/or projects involving people in sensitive categories, including:
    • participants who may not be able to give fully informed consent (e.g. children)
    • people whose participation may not be fully voluntary (e.g. institutionalised individuals; individuals in dependent relationships);
    • participants who may be vulnerable to harm inflicted by the research.
  • This list is not exhaustive and supervisors should consult Departmental Ethics Officer about individual cases if in doubt.

Research Conducted Abroad

Universal ethical principles state that you should comply with the ethical procedures in the country in which you are researching. In many cases (e.g. the United States), this means complying with UK procedures (so making an application through the HUMS Ethics Committee) and carrying the certificate with you. In other countries (e.g. Germany), for certain types of research (e.g. in scientific facilities), you have to apply to the relevant ethics committee in that country. Other countries have no formal procedure at all. Like all UK committees, the HUMS Ethics Committee covers research conducted in the UK. If you are researching abroad, the onus is on you to investigate and comply with the ethical criteria in that country. This also applies if you are conducting research with participants in another country (e.g. via email or telephone), but do not physically leave the UK.

Research Involving NHS Staff or Patients

The NHS has its own ethics application procedure which covers research with samples recruited from NHS patients and staff through NHS sources. It is a long procedure, so allow 9-12 months from the start of research to complete this and to apply for separate research approval (site-specific) from the relevant hospital trust or body. If the health professional is not recruited through the NHS source, and holds another title (e.g. academic), then NHS approval would not necessarily be needed.

If you think you might have to apply for NHS approval, please use the NHS Medical Research Council Decision Tool and contact the University’s Research Ethics and Governance team.

It is not necessary to seek approval from the HUMS Ethics Committee in addition to NHS approval. You should, however, inform the Committee of the research you are conducting by contacting the Committee Chair. 

 

2. Why Should You Make an Ethics Application?

  • It gives you an opportunity to think through the ethical implications which inevitably arise when your research involves human participants or animals.
  • It helps you to ensure that all participants are protected and that human participants are well-informed and have fully consented to take part in your research (and so are not likely to withdraw data or raise complaints later on).
  • It helps you to prioritize your own and other researchers’ safety.
  • It is now a requirement for publication by many major publishers and journals, who might ask you to confirm in your publication that your project has received ethical approval.
  • It is also a requirement for many funding bodies (AHRC, British Academy, Wellcome Trust, etc.) to provide an ethics statement.
  • Many countries and organizations require you to carry the ethical approval document with you to confirm who you are and that what you are doing has been approved.
  • If you are doing a PhD, you may be required to provide documentation of ethical approval (e.g. in the thesis appendices) and it may jeopardize your PhD if you cannot provide it.
  • It will help you comply with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in relation to research data.

 

3. How Should You Submit Your Application?

Please note that the University’s e-Ethics system will be replaced by a new electronic system in the near future. More information will be posted soon. In the meantime, please follow the instructions below and submit proposals via email.

If you think that your research does contain significant ethical implications, you will need to prepare three documents: Ethics Proposal Template, a Participant Information Sheet, and a Consent Form. Please use the existing templates and discuss the application materials with your Departmental Ethics Officer before submitting them to the Committee for review. The participant information sheet and consent form templates should be adjusted to ensure that the level and detail of information provided and the language used is tailored towards participants. Once the application has been discussed with the Departmental Ethics Officer and, if necessary, amended based on their feedback, please submit the application materials by email to humanities-ethics@exeter.ac.uk. The submission deadlines are given above.

 

4. What Do I Need to Consider When Writing the Application? 

Consent

Written consent is usually preferred, and is expected by many participants. It provides written evidence (for you and for the participant) that the person voluntarily consented. You and the participant should sign two copies of the information sheet. Retain one sheet yourself and give the other to the participant.

Consent considerations include:

  • the voluntary nature of participation, including recruitment;
  • confidentiality;
  • anonymity;
  • information about the project;
  • the right to withdraw at any time (before, during or after data has been collected) without disadvantage to the participant.

If the consent form is to be provided in a language other than English, copies of the original and translation should be included. In your application, you will need to confirm that documents have been translated by a competent person with no significant changes to the original meaning.

If written consent is not possible (e.g. because it would be culturally insensitive or disruptive to the data collection process), then this should be explained and full details of the oral consent procedure given.

If people are being observed as part of a participant observation, or online, you must consider:

  • accessibility: to what extent would participants reasonably expect to be observed (e.g. is it a public space, or a private chatroom?);
  • how private do they perceive the event/place to be (e.g. do they expect their discussions to be repeated outside?).

The Informed Nature of Participation

Participants need to know what the project is about and what any risks or benefits of participating might be. This is usually done by writing an information sheet that is often distributed together with the consent letter.

In the rare cases that an information sheet is not appropriate (e.g. because oral consent is preferable), please justify this and explain how participants will be able to contact you for further details or to withdraw from the study.

If the information sheet is to be provided in a language other than English, copies of the original and translation should be included. In your application, you will need to confirm that documents have been translated by a competent person with no significant changes to the original meaning.

Assessment of Possible Harm

Assessment of possible harm covers both harm to participants, and harm to you the researcher. Participants could potentially be harmed:

  • psychologically (e.g. if they get distressed or an interview provokes earlier trauma);
  • legally, politically or economically (e.g. if confidential information from the interview were shared, or if their anonymity were compromised without consent, or their employer felt the data did not represent their organisation, or the police viewed the material as criminal);
  • physically (e.g. individuals in domestic violence situations, political prisoners in regimes with punitive measures for talking to researchers, taking part in new clinical drugs testing).

You do not need to exaggerate the potential harm to participants, but you need to think about how you will ensure that your project adheres to the principle of ‘do no harm’. Involving collaborators with relevant experience (e.g. community groups, specialised counselling services, support networks) when designing your project can be crucial. It is also important to consider (and explain to the HUMS Ethics Committee) how participants might benefit from participating in the research activities.

Researcher safety is important to consider as well, particularly where the researcher is researching alone (e.g. interviewing in people’s homes), with groups that may pose difficulties (e.g. people with a history of violent behaviour), in situations of conflict or cultural contexts that might entail danger for individuals on the basis of their e.g. gender, sexual, racial, ethnic or religious identity, or in countries with known risks (e.g. war zones, terrorism). You need to create a plan of how to manage these risks and tell us about it, including, if travelling abroad, reference to Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advice and University insurance office guidelines. For example, a PhD researcher researching alone might provide their supervisor with an email or phone number before a home visit with details of where they are going; or a researcher visiting a country with known risks must state how such risks will be avoided or minimised. Researchers in countries which may be dangerous need to gain local knowledge (e.g. from other researchers in the same area) plus visit governmental updated websites when in situ to assess risk (as well as using their common sense).

Data Protection and Storage

The collection and storage of personal data needs to be compliant with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in May 2018. Further information can be found on the University’s GDPR pages.

When writing your application, please explain:

  • if and how anonymity will be protected. If anonymity is not an option, it is your responsibility to ensure that this is clear to participants; you also need to ensure that you protect both participants and potential third parties from possible harm resulting from non-anonymised data;
  • how the security of the data will be guaranteed, for example, where and how it will be stored (if you need to store data on a cloud service, the University recommends using OneDrive or SharePoint);
  • how long the data will be retained. Many people specify a time period (e.g. five years) before material will be destroyed; others say that material will be kept indefinitely; either way, you must include these details on the participant information sheet.

Extensive information about data management, including UoE policies, can be found on the University’s Research Data Management and Information Government pages.

Declaration of Interests

A conflict of interests does not only arise if you have a commercial motive for research, it can also arise if your job title, position in life, or source of funding might affect your impartiality in relation to participants (e.g. if you are a Christian minister researching non-Christian faiths, or you are funded by a charity with a particular agenda). The solution is to inform participants if this is the case, let them know who your funders are, how and for what purpose the research will be used, and how and where the results may be published.

User Engagement and Feedback

It is becoming more usual to include participants as collaborators in the design, executing and reporting on their own study. Some researchers engage in highly reflexive processes with participants reviewing their own transcripts and feeding back their thoughts on published work. Such participatory approaches can be valuable for everyone involved, but it is important to be realistic regarding time constraints. Make sure your participants know how to get in touch with you (e.g. by listing your contact details on the participant information sheet or sharing contact details in another way when obtaining oral consent). This allows participants to withdraw, offer feedback, and learn more about the outcome of the study later on.

 

Queries

If you have any queries, contact your Departmental Ethics Officer in the first instance. If you cannot resolve the matter, you can contact the Chair of the Committee for further advice. Contact details can be found above.

Reference

For further information, students and staff are referred to the ethical guidelines and codes of professional conduct published by the following professional bodies:

 

Template Forms

Ethics Proposal Template

Participant Information Sheet

Consent Form

 

Form Queries 

University staff can also access guidance via the Research Toolkit (login required).