Research ethical review

A research ethical review is required by the Principal's Office through the University Teaching and Research Ethics Committee (UTREC).

The review is designed to help people think through the ethical implications of their research and to ensure research is conducted in a manner that affords appropriate protection with respect for respondents and third parties alike.

The process is an important opportunity to consider the overall research design of a project, the contingencies for data collection and storage, and methods for ensuring the confidentiality of respondents. For supervisors it is also an excellent pedagogical tool, enabling students to learn best practices for good ethical research, skills that can be carried on throughout their lives.

An ethical review is intended as a positive experience and is not designed to prevent sound social research. An ethical review does not prevent research from being conducted in dangerous or difficult places or amongst hidden or vulnerable populations. Rather, the review focuses on minimizing risks for research participants and ensuring that the value of research corresponds to the risks taken.

Most ethical reviews can be processed in an expedient fashion, if researchers put thought into their applications and design their methods, protocols, and engagements with the wellbeing of their subjects in mind.


Spring 2018 School Ethics Committee meeting dates and submission deadlines

Meeting dateSubmission deadline
February 07 January 29
March 07 February 26
April 11 April 02
May 09 April 30

Does my project need to undergo ethics review?

Research projects that meet any of the below criteria need to undergo an ethics review:

  • Human subjects research: ethics applications are always required whenever human participants are involved in the research in any way, including low-risk research. Human subjects research includes, but is not limited to: interviews, participant observation, surveys, and laboratory and field experiments.
  • Secondary use of human subjects data: an ethics application needs to be submitted if you are going to reuse data collected by another scholar through human subjects research.
  • Sensitive data and records: even other forms of research may sometimes necessitate ethics approval if they involve access to and use of sensitive personal data. For example, if an organization or archive has given you access to medical, mental health, prison, trade union, or similarly sensitive records, you should apply for ethics approval.
  • Terrorism and extremism research: any research that will access websites or social media of groups that could be considered terrorist/extremist/radical could cross into murky legal waters here in the United Kingdom. Such projects need to obtain ethical approval, requiring both a standard application form (but no supporting documents) and a sensitive research form.

Submitting an IR ethics application

To ensure efficient consideration and processing, please read all guidelines thoroughly and make sure you submit a complete and thoughtful application. Incomplete applications may be returned without consideration, significantly delaying the approval process. You will find additional information on ethical principals and how they should guide your research design on the UTREC webpage.

At a minimum, IR applications are expected to have:

  • fully completed and signed application form (including supervisor's signature for students)
  • participant information sheet
  • consent form(s)
  • debrief form
  • sample interview questions or a survey draft (for most IR applications)

If you are deviating from these standard practices, and thus do not need one or more of the above supplementary documents, then these choices must be fully explained and justified in Q28 of the application form.

Depending on their nature, ethics applications might also require:

  • sensitive research form (for accessing terrorism/extremism/radical group web and social media content)
  • permission(s) to access research site(s)
  • advertisements
  • verbal consent/participant information/debrief scripts (if substituting for written forms)
  • PVG approval/police check

The application form as well as templates for the supplementary documents can be found on the UTREC webpage. Additionally, if your research involves child participants, you must consult with the UTREC child panel representative, Dr Barbara Dritschel (bd9@st-andrews.ac.uk), prior to submitting your ethics application.

All IR ethics applications should be uploaded to MMS as a single PDF document. Please contact the IR ethics email account (irethics@st-andrews.ac.uk) to be granted access to our MMS tool. As it might take a couple of days to process, please send your request well in advance of your submission deadline.

The members of the School Ethics Committee (SEC) are available for consultation and applications can be looked over before official submission.

Review process

The School Ethics Committee (SEC) is the first and often only step in the review process. After submission, your application will be discussed at the next committee meeting, assuming it met the deadline. The SEC will review the proposed research, providing constructive criticism and advice. Feedback and instructions for re-submission will be sent within a week of the committee meeting.

One of four outcomes is possible:

  • Immediate approval: usually only granted for abridged applications with sensitive research forms. Remember that this is a peer review process and most applications need some revision.
  • Minor revisions: complete, well-developed, and thoughtful applications usually only need minor adjustments and do not need further discussion by the committee. After receiving feedback, you may resubmit at any time—no need to wait for a committee meeting. A designated ethics committee member will then review your changes and, assuming the feedback has been integrated into the application, quickly authorise approval.
  • Major revisions: this usually occurs because an application was incomplete, poorly developed, or it did not address a major ethical issue arising from the proposed research. The revised application must then be discussed at a subsequent committee meeting, which can significantly delay the approval process.
  • Referral to UTREC: Particularly sensitive or complex ethics applications may need to be referred to UTREC for further guidance and approval. All applications involving child subjects must be escalated to UTREC. This process can take significant time as the application will have to meet the deadline for the next available UTREC meeting and may necessitate multiple rounds of revisions.

After obtaining approval, an official letter will be emailed to you. You may then proceed with your fieldwork.

The SEC refers its decisions to UTREC for acknowledgement and monitoring. UTREC has the final decision for the University and its decisions cannot be appealed. However, applications not approved by UTREC can be revised and resubmitted, and advice is generally given by UTREC on facilitating this.

In some cases additional ethics approval, exterior to the University, will be required. Generally, these cases involve particularly vulnerable or sensitive populations. Also, many funders require submission to their own ethics review process, including the ESRC. Even in cases where external or additional approval is required, the research must still obtain SEC and UTREC approval as the University is ultimately and legally responsible for all research undertaken by its members.

Remember, an ethics review is peer review. This is not a policing or auditing function. It is intended to improve research implementation and ensure the protection of respondents. If peer review of articles and other publication is the end of the research process, think of an ethical review as the peer review at the beginning of the research process.

When should I submit my ethics application?

An ethical application should be submitted before undertaking research. This is especially important for doctoral candidates; by strict interpretation of University policy data obtained without ethical approval is not to be included in dissertations for a degree. Students, both undergraduates and postgraduates, must include the ethics review approval statement in their dissertation submissions.

How far in advance of field research you should submit your application depends on the complexity of your project.

Most applications we receive are low risk (elite interviews and anonymous surveys) and require only minor revisions. We thus generally recommend submitting your application in time for an ethics committee meeting that is no less than 2-3 weeks prior to the start of your research project. That allows plenty of time for you to receive feedback, resubmit, and get approval.

Sensitive research forms for research involving the web content or social media of groups that could be considered terrorist/extremist/radical that involve no human subjects can usually be granted immediate approval. You can thus anticipate beginning research 1-2 days after the committee meeting whose deadline you met.

If your research involves particularly vulnerable populations and subject matter and might need UTREC approval—for example, children, groups involved in criminal activity, people receiving care services, survivors of rape, genocide or torture, civilians in war zones, etc.—please submit your ethics application at least 3 months prior to the start of fieldwork.

Expedited review

An expedited review is possible, for faculty and PhD students, when unexpected opportunities arise to conduct fieldwork, such as last-minute invitations from international organisations or upcoming chance encounters with public officials willing to be interviewed. Expedited reviews are not intended as a measure to compensate for poor planning for normal research projects, which must follow standard application procedures.

Please contact the chair of the School Ethics Committee, Dr Kristen Harkness (kh81@st-andrews.ac.uk) as soon as such an opportunity arises to request an expedited review.

Amendments to ethics applications

Sometimes projects change and additional human subjects research is necessary, perhaps in a new fieldwork location or amongst a different population than originally sampled. In such cases, an amendment form, available on the UTREC webpage, should be submitted to the School Ethics Committee detailing and justifying the proposed changes. These are processed in the same way as normal applications.

For students of all levels, changes to the title of your project also necessitate submitting an amendment form. In other words, the title of your dissertation needs to match the project title on the ethical approval letter bound into it. These can be processed very quickly but please think ahead and allow at least a few days before you need to bind your dissertation.

Ethical principals and protecting research subjects

The ESRC has identified six principles to govern ethical review that guide SEC and UTREC ethical review. They are:

  • Research should be designed and undertaken with integrity and quality. The peer review process ensures this.
  • Research staff and subjects should be informed about the purpose, methods and intended possible uses of the research, what their participation entails, and what risks if any are involved.
  • The confidentiality of information supplied by the subjects and the anonymity of respondents must be respected.
  • Research subjects must participate in voluntary ways free of coercion.
  • Harm to research participants should be avoided, including harm by neglect.
  • The independence of research must be clear, and any conflicts of interest or partiality must be explicit.

The ethical review process is centrally concerned with ensuring the protection and well being of those who make our research possible and meaningful. To ensure such protection, the following five areas must be considered:

  • Honouring trust: in all research, including when there may be a conflict of interest, social researchers must place the interests and rights of the respondents, informants and participants first. Similarly, researchers should consider the impact of their work on that of their colleagues, should they potentially undermine the ability of colleagues to establish trust within similar communities or populations. Where it is not possible to fully guarantee the interests of participants or subjects, social researchers should seriously consider whether they should pursue that piece or strand of research.
  • Anticipating harm: social researchers must be sensitive to the possible consequences of their work and should identify and protect against potential harm. Researchers should consider the impact of their work on research subjects, participants and support staff, including interpreters, research assistants, drivers, and others involved in and assisting with data collection. In certain situations, where religious or ethnic minorities or populations involved in socially deviant behaviours may be particularly vulnerable, it may be necessary to withhold data or to refrain from studying these groups altogether. In addition, in all cases where there is the potential for physical risk, this must be passed through the School and University's risk assessment procedures.
  • Negotiating informed consent: negotiating informed consent centres on clearly and accurately communicating the substance and aims of the research to a potential respondent, and gaining their agreement in turn. This can be obtained through the exchange of a written document (which is the preferred option) or by oral consent where written consent is dangerous or inappropriate. The respondent should be made aware of the scope and duration of the research project. Under some circumstances covert research is possible, but it requires a higher degree of scrutiny and a more precise articulation of the purpose and benefits on not engaging in full disclosure. When technical data-gathering devices are employed, such as audio or video recording devices, the respondent or participant should be made aware of the capabilities of such devices and must be free to reject their use without prejudice.
  • Rights to confidentiality and anonymity: informants and respondents must have the option to engage researchers under terms of confidentiality and anonymity. Confidentiality and anonymity are kept to protect respondents' privacy, to ensure their social standing, and to protect against the adverse effects of revealing illegal or socially deviant activities. Keeping confidentiality and anonymity also requires protocols for data storage. In those cases of extremely sensitive materials, extra precautions should be taken, including the creation of coding protocols so that it is not possible to connect testimony or disclosures to particular individuals.
  • Respondents' participation: social researchers must be sensitive to their ability to disrupt or alter social networks and human relationships. Many communities feel that researchers descend upon them and take away their information, time, and respect by making them feel they are objects and not subjects of research. Often returning to a field site after research is concluded to share results is greatly appreciated and normally an offer to share results should be made.

Unethical outcomes

UTREC has mandated that University research not be used to unethical ends. Social psychology research to improve the effectiveness of torture would be an example of unethical outcomes of social research.

In addition, research should not be used in a way that puts respondents at serious risk. Respondents cannot consent to place themselves in danger and the application and use of the research should be fully disclosed to them.

Issues of funding

Ethical issues may arise with regard to funding sources of research. These concerns generally relate to the previous point of unethical applications. Most funders of academic research desire open and unfettered explorations. Ethical issues arise if funders aim to steer research to particular findings regardless of the research outcomes. Similarly, funding that is explicitly tied to particular findings is considered unethical. Funders should not place constraints on researchers, their methodologies, or, most importantly, their conclusions. The terms of the relationship between researcher and funder may come under review.

Similarly, while University researchers have the academic freedom to pursue their own subject interests they have an obligation to not engage in research that may adversely affect others in the School and within the University, particularly regarding others' ability to conduct their own research. With the same concern for treating respondents with respect, researchers should also consider the impact on other researchers within the school and the University. The independence of research must be clear and ensured at all times. Neither funders nor other researchers should encroach upon the independence of research or academic inquiry.

In all cases where funding or sponsorship is sought and obtained, the University's ‘Funders and Funding Approval Application’ process must be followed. This is on the UTREC webpage, and a flowchart details the process. Briefly, this form is submitted to the Head of School, who makes a recommendation to UTREC, which then sends its comments to the Head of School for approval or not. UTREC has given an undertaking to normally turn around an application, once it receives it, within two working days. A list of pre-approved funders can be found on the UTREC web page.

Tips and tricks to avoid application errors

  • Ethical Considerations Box: Do not forget to include details on secure data storage and destruction.
  • Start date (Q1): Make sure this is after the ethics meeting during which your application will be considered.
  • Location of research (Q7): This needs to be more specific than a city or a country. Are you conducting interviews in an office or a cafe or in a location of the interviewees choice? Be as detailed as you can.
  • Have you lived/worked outside the UK? (Q23): If you have answered no to all of Q22 then leave this question blank, otherwise answer it.
  • Proper signatures: Make sure all of your forms are signed. Also, do not type out names in the signature boxes but actually sign the forms. If your supervisor is unable to physically sign the form or to digitally attach a copy of their signature, they may email their approval to irethics@st-andrews.ac.uk.
  • Consent forms: Make sure you choose the correct consent form. Most IR researchers conducting interviews or surveys need the “coded consent form” as you will know the identity of your subjects but you will later anonymise them. Only use the “anonymous” consent form if you are conducting a survey in which not even you will be able to link a survey back to an individual. Delete any questions from the template that do not apply to your research. What you ask of your subjects in the consent form should match both your discussion in Q28 of the application form and the information you give your subjects in the participation information sheet.
  • All template forms: Make these look professional. Delete all guidance notes that were provided for your benefit. Singularize researcher throughout or change to researchers (do not leave researcher(s) in). Also, make sure the information you are providing to your participants is consistent across all the forms they receive (including data storage and destruction practices). Individuals cannot give informed consent if they are confused as to what you are actually going to do.
  • Data Destruction: Faculty and PhD students are encouraged to ask to keep their data indefinitely and to ask subjects for permission to use it in future research. Getting permission up front avoids all sorts of problems later. The expectation for undergraduate and MLitt students is that they will destroy there data shortly after completion of their degree, unless a compelling reason to keep the data longer is articulated in Q28 of the application form. If destroying data, please give a specific destruction time frame—do not say “at least X years” even though the template does so.
  • Surveys: We understand that when distributing an anonymous survey, you are not going to give subjects the various template forms. Please design your survey such that the first page provides the same types of information in the PIS and asks for consent in the standard ways for surveys. The last page should give some sort of debrief that includes thanking the participants for their time, inviting them to ask for the results of the research, and providing your contact information. You may submit a link to your survey or a draft of it in place of the standard template forms.
  • Written Forms Do Not Work in My Context: We also understand that in some contexts it is actually ethically or culturally inappropriate to make subjects sign physical consent forms or present them with too much paperwork. If you need to deviate from the standard write forms, please provide a full explanation in Q28 of the application form and create a supplementary document that explains in detail what you are going to do in place of the written forms (such as a script you will use to provide subjects verbally with information and obtain their verbal consent).

More information