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Ethics Approval


Ethics Approval

Law School Ethics Committee


In the past, research ethics have been a low priority to researchers. However the public hostility to the rise of incidents involving, for example, body parts stored by researchers without permission and in poor conditions (see The Redfern Report), covert study of individuals via technology (e.g. Bluetooth tracking); and vulnerable groups treated as mere guinea pigs, have meant that those days have clearly passed. Further, the funding of research and pressures from funders is perhaps now more problematic than it has been in the past, with more funders seeking research which supports a given agenda. ‘Cut and paste’ from the internet has also led to a rise in plagiarism. All universities have thus come under pressure to take research ethics more seriously.

‘Research ethics’ is simply the process whereby researchers pay attention to the mores of the academic community, the legal context in which they work, and the rights of the researched. Each researcher must be responsible for considering these aspects, and the Law School Ethics Committee is there to ensure that these issues are taken into account at the design stage of your research project. The first stage of this is done by filling in a short form (see below).

It is common to classify legal research projects into one of three broad groups of risk.

Low risk: this is usually research which is library based and does not involve interviews or contact with individuals, except through the medium of writing. The primary risk to be found here is of plagiarism, though a literature review being paid for by an external funder could also pose a risk if only some parts of the literature are requested to be reviewed.

Medium risk: this is research which involves interviews or contacts with individuals who are, perhaps, professionals and able to clearly understand what is expected from contact with a researcher. That is: respect for confidentiality, data protection legislation, copyright and that the information they provide will be treated in a properly academic manner – e.g. free from bias.

High risk: this is research which involves contact with individuals who are vulnerable: for example, children, prisoners, the elderly, and those who suffer from mental illness. Particular problems in medical law also arise if you are co-researching with clinical researchers (these projects should usually be considered by a clinical ethics committee).

This type of research is considered high risk because the group may not understand the risks of being a research subject and the power relationship between the researcher and the subject is unbalanced. The researcher must ensure that those aspects found with medium risk projects are considered but also that the relationship with the vulnerable subject is not abused.

All researchers must consider which group their research project fits into and then plan their research strategy in that light. The Ethics Committee’s function is to ensure that this process is happening, and that the individual researcher is proceeding with high ethical standards.

All students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and staff are required to fill in an ethics form outlining your research and approach to be taken, prior to starting your project. Discuss this form with your supervisor or any member of the Ethics Committee. If problems arise during your project (e.g. that the strategy changes to include interviews, or sensitive information is unearthed) discuss this with the Chair of the Ethics Committee.



QUB Definition of Plagiarism: “Plagiarism is defined as the presentation of the work of others as the writer’s own without appropriate acknowledgement.” 7.17 Study Regulations, QUB. Note that this emphasises ‘the work of others’, which means that it not only includes literal transcription (‘cut and paste’) but techniques such as rewriting or extracting references from the work of others.

Plagiarism is particularly serious if it is undertaken by postgraduate students (“Any incidence of plagiarism or fabrication by a postgraduate research student shall be deemed to be ‘major’, see 7.4 Study Regulations, QUB.)



Breach of confidence (upon which the UK’s new law of privacy has been developed) gives a research subject the right to expect that anything they say will – if confidence has been offered – be held in a secure manner (e.g. transcripts should not be accessible to others) and that any views reported in research work will be fully anonymised. No reader of a piece of research should – unless the subject has given permission – be able to determine who that subject was.


Data Protection

The effect of data protection legislation has travelled far beyond its original conception (large government and business databases where it has had very little impact) but is now highly relevant for  the sole researcher - particularly as much of the data which the researcher collects would be described as 'personal' or 'sensitive personal' data. Broadly, one must only store personal data if the subject has given consent; one must ensure only relevant and accurate data is stored; and - if it does not meet the research exemption of Section 33 of the DP Act - must be destroyed when no longer required for the purpose for which it was collected. Failure to fulfil these obligations can leave the researcher open to criminal prosecution by the Information Commssioner. The JISCLegal paper ( is a highly useful guide.



Interviews which are recorded are the copyright of the interviewer (or their employer should a research assistant be utilised). However, in the UK, the subject also has a copyright in their recorded words. This (in practice) means that a researcher can republish extracts but cannot publish more substantial sections of the recorded interview without the permission of the interviewee. If your project is of an ‘oral history’ type, you should take advice on gaining permission to publish. A useful link is the Oral History Society at


Data Retention

Data Protection Principle 5 suggests that data should not be kept unduly:

“Personal data processed for any purpose or purposes shall not be kept for longer than is necessary for that purpose or those purposes.”

Researchers sometimes think that this means that research data should – as a matter of good practice – be deleted at the end of a research project.  This is not necessarily the case.  Section 33 of the Data Protection Act allows researchers to keep data for indefinite periods of time when this has a research purpose.  There are several reasons why you might wish to do this:

  1. Data which is collected for a research project may be usable in future projects during your research career;
  2. It may be necessary to revisit data to prove that any interpretation you made was accurate.
  3. It may be possible to allow other researchers access to the data (even in the distant future).

We suggest therefore that you consider carefully whether your data should be retained. A student project with limited data collection may be best deleted whilst for a PhD or staff project it may be better retained.

Section 33 does not mean that data protection is irrelevant.  Importantly, the data must not be used “in such a way that substantial damage or substantial distress is, or is likely to be, caused to any data subject.”  Also, data which is kept must be kept securely. 

A further option for retained data is that it might be ‘cleaned’ to produce anonymised data which is therefore no longer ‘personal data’ and thus the Data Protection Act and confidentiality requirements no longer apply.  This would be relevant for, say, survey data which collected email or IP addresses and where removal of these would produce data which contained no personal information.  It is possible, though more difficult, to use this technique with interview materials.

For more information on the issues see the Administrative Data Liaison Service (ADLS) advice for researchers at  (The ADLS, incidentally, has collections of government data which might be useful in research projects).  If you are still confused, approach the Ethics Committee for advice.


Good Practice Guides

Before completing your research ethics form, you are advised to read:

And the relevant good practice guide for your particular field:


The Law School Ethics Process

Project is Low Risk - all students (undergraduate and postgraduate) must discuss with and receive confirmation from the supervisor that the project can be undertaken as a ‘low risk’ project. Then, fill in a research ethics form (available online – link below). This automatically emails a copy to the supervisor and a copy of this ethics form will be stored in the law school ethics database. The supervisor is responsible for ensuring that the project is actually low risk.

Project is Medium Risk – all students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and staff must fill in a research ethics form and await a favourable ethical opinion from the Law School Ethics Committee. Peer review is required for this, and the views of reviewers must be passed to the Law School Ethics Committee (via the online form) for favourable comment.

Since human subjects are involved, there must be a clear ‘research sponsor’ (this will usually be the University but may be a funder). Also, the primary investigator must add details of the project to the University Human Subjects Database (accessible via QOL) to ensure appropriate indemnity arrangements. Postgraduates must request their supervisors to add this information to the Human Subjects Database.

Project is High Risk – a full peer review of high risk projects is required. For legal topics this will not usually be carried out by funding body, so must be done in-house or with external experts. All high risk projects will be examined carefully by the Law School Research Ethics Committee and a full peer review document covering the proposed project is essential to this processing. All students (undergraduate and postgraduate) and staff must fill in a research ethics form and await positive confirmation of an ethics review from the Law School Ethics Committee.

Since human subjects are involved, there must be a clear ‘research sponsor’ (this will usually be the University but may be a funder). Also, the primary investigator must add details of the project to the University Human Subjects Database (accessible via QOL) to ensure appropriate indemnity arrangements. Postgraduates must request their supervisors to add this information to the Human Subjects Database.

Who can Peer Review?

The QUB regulations relating to peer review are:

Project Type

Peer Review Requirements

Undergraduate/taught postgraduate

1 member of University academic staff, (preferably not supervising the project)

Research student (PhD, MPhil, DGov, MD)

2 members of University academic staff

University Staff - University Research Sponsor

2 reviewers (can be external to the University)

University Staff - University/Trust Research Co-sponsor

2 reviewers, preferably one appointed by each organisation, but both could be appointed by either the University or Trust

University Staff - Trust Research Sponsor

2 reviewers appointed by the Trust (can be University staff or external)

Note that supervisors can be peer reviewers when the student is a research student - it is only for UG and taught PG programmes that the supervisor cannot fulfil this function.

Brief guidelines are available here for the peer reviewers.

University Human Subjects Database

 All projects involving human participants or their data must be recorded in the University Human Subjects Research database; otherwise they will not be covered by the University indemnity insurance. This database is accessed through the ‘My Research’ option in Queen’s online. Responsibility for updating the database rests with the Chief Investigator, or if the Chief Investigator is not a member of Queen’s staff, with the Queen’s member of staff who is responsible for the University aspects of the research.  A student cannot act as a Chief Investigator, irrespective of his or her employment status and the student’s primary supervisor should normally act as the Chief Investigator.

 One of the mandatory fields within the database refers to the degree of risk associated with the research project. Usually, for socio-legal research, the level of risk will be Level 1. This covers those projects which although involving human subjects are in no way associated with a medicinal purpose i.e. essentially involving research into, for example, behaviour, attitudes, care issues, rights and education issues;

Failure to update and maintain the above records is a breach of the University’s Code of Conduct in Research. Such breaches will be referred to the University Research Governance Officer and may result in disciplinary action.


The Process in Diagrammatic Form

View full size diagram

ethics approval 



Fill in Ethics Online Form

Click here if your project is low risk.

Click here if your project is medium risk.

Click here if your project is high risk.


Law School Ethics Committee Membership

Luke Moffett (Chair)

Sally Wheeler (Member)

Brice Dickson (Member)

Mark Flear (Member)

Mary Dobbs (Member)

Kevin Brown (Member)

Pamela Jamison (Lay Member)

Deaglan Coyle (Support to Committee)