Research Ethics

Research Ethics

Research Ethics

The Department expects all research by its students and staff to be conducted according to expected ethical standards of the discipline and the University. These mandate that any research undertaken by staff or students that involves human participants, personal data, or human tissue is subject to a formal ethics review. The main purpose of the Department’s ethics review procedure is to facilitate the research undertaken by members of the Department, both staff and students, in a way that protects both our research participants and ourselves. See the Department of History’s ethics review procedure for further guidance.

The University’s Ethics Policy Governing Research Involving Human Participants, Personal Data and Human Tissue applies to:

- all University staff and registered students who conduct, or contribute to, research activities involving human participants, personal data or human tissue, whether these take place within or outside University premises and facilities, or are part of a work placement undertaken in fulfilment of a University degree award; and
- all individuals who, although they are not members of the University, conduct, or contribute to, research activities involving human participants, personal data or human tissue that take place within University premises and facilities.

The University’s definition of research is ‘a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared’; the full details are outlined in Research Ethics: General Principles and Statements.

Research funding bodies may have their own research ethics policies and/or requirements, which must be met as a condition for receiving research funding. However, this does not obviate the need for observance of the University’s Policy and its associated procedures; in such cases, the external policies and requirements are an extra layer of research ethics governance, not an alternative to the University’s Policy.

Similarly, external research collaborators may be required to follow the ethics policies and procedures of their own organisations. However, the University’s Policy and procedures must still be followed in any collaborative research that involves University of Sheffield staff or students. In some cases, an external organisation’s ethics review procedure may be deemed sufficiently robust that additional ethical approval via the University of Sheffield’s procedure is not required – see section 4 of the Research Ethics Approval Procedure for more details (‘Alternative Ethics Review Procedure’).

More information:

  • Research that Involves Human Participants
  • Research that Involves Personal Data
  • Supplementary Guidance on Conducting Oral History Legally and Ethically
  • The Ethics Review Procedure
  • Ethics Reviewers
  • Research Ethics Officer

These webpages highlight aspects of the University’s ethics policy and guidance that are most likely to be relevant to staff and students in the Department of History. Students and staff should consult the University’s Ethics Policy, Specialist Guidance Papers, Research Ethics Policy Notes, and Supporting guidance on the University’s Ethics Review Procedure for full details and further guidance.

Students may also find the Brief Student Guide to Research Ethics helpful.

Human Participants

Research that Involves Human Participants

Research involving human participants can be broadly defined as research that:

  • directly involves people in research activities through their actual participation as research subjects, during which research data will be collected from them. ‘Actual participation’, is not limited to face-to-face interactions: it includes research processes such as interviews, questionnaires, and surveys, whether carried out face-to-face, or via telephone, email or the internet, or observational research.
  • indirectly involves people in research activities as research subjects, through their provision of, or access to their, personal data and/or tissue; or
  • involves people in research activities while they are acting on behalf of others who are research subjects, during which research data will be collected from them (e.g. as parents or legal guardians of children or mentally incapacitated people, or as supervisors of people in controlled environments, such as prisoners, pupils, asylum seekers, psychiatric patients whether sectioned or not, etc.).

In general terms, ethics approval is required when a project will involve interaction with people in order to collect individuals’ opinions and/or personal information as research data, in a systematic way for analysis and/or reporting as research, or as part of a student research assignment. Research data can be defined as ‘the evidence used to inform or support research conclusions.’

In general terms, ethics approval is not required when a project will involve interaction with people in order for them to contribute only to an activity which does not constitute research (e.g. where they are only contributing to the design of the research project itself) with no intention to disseminate the data/findings as academic research.

Further information on defining human research participants can be found in the University’s Research Ethics Policy Note no. 1, which includes on pp.5-8 tables of further guidance regarding what constitutes human participation in a research project, and therefore whether or not ethics approval is required.

Personal Data

Research that Involves Personal Data

The University’s Research Ethics Policy uses the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) definition of personal data:

‘“personal data”: means any information relating to an identified or identifiable natural (living) person (“data subject”); an identifiable natural person is one who can be identified, directly or indirectly, in particular by reference to an identifier such as a name, an identification number, location data, an online identifier or to one or more factors specific to the physical, physiological, genetic, mental, economic, cultural or social identity of that natural person.’

Once an individual’s personal data has been robustly anonymised, such that the individual is no longer identifiable, then the data is no longer classed as personal data. However, researchers should consider carefully any situation in which the individual may potentially be re-identified by means that are ‘reasonably likely’ to be used.

Some personal data also falls under a ‘special category of personal data’ in the data protection legislation. This includes information about:
- racial or ethnic origin;
- political opinions;
- religious or philosophical beliefs;
- trade union membership;
- data concerning health;
- data concerning a person’s sex life or sexual orientation;
- processing of genetic data or biometric data for the purpose of uniquely identifying a natural person;
- criminal records or allegations.

Data that falls into any of the above categories are subject to additional requirements under the GDPR; processing of such data is allowed only in a number of specific circumstances, which are discussed further in the Specialist Research Ethics Guidance Paper, ‘Principles of Anonymity, Confidentiality and Data Protection.’

 Supplementary Guidance

Supplementary Guidance on Conducting Oral History Legally and Ethically

Oral history interviews are the most common form of research involving human participants and/or personal data that is undertaken by students and staff in the Department of History. Though the University’s Policy must, in the first instance, take precedence, useful resources that offer supplementary guidance are available from the Oral History Society. In particular, the Oral History Society provides helpful guidance on conducting legal and ethical oral history, including practical steps, preparation, first approach, during the interview, after the interview, archiving and storage, frequently asked questions, useful web links, and further reading. Since the Oral History Society’s advice was written, GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) has come into effect in the UK and EU, and it is therefore important to supplement the advice that is linked above with the Oral History Society’s new GDPR guidance.

Members of the Department intending to conduct oral history interviews should familiarise themselves with the Oral History Society’s advice.

 Ethics Review Procedure

Ethics Review Procedure


Research involving human participants, human tissue or personal data must not begin before research ethics review has taken place, according to the Research Ethics Approval Procedure, and ethics approval has been granted. Retrospective ethics review is not permitted.

The University has an online Ethics Application System through which you can apply for ethics approval. For full details, see the document outlining the Research Ethics Approval Procedure.

There are guides to 'Completing the University’s Research Ethics Application Form' for students and for staff. See also the Ten Top Tips to get your ethics application approved first time, the guidance for completing an Information Sheet for potential human participants in your research, and the Example Participant Consent Form. Helpsheets are also available to support the application process for PGT and UG Applicants, PGR Applicants, and Staff Applicants.

The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which came into effect in 2018, created new requirements relating to the information that should be provided to research participants. These requirements are summarised here and have been incorporated into the information sheet guidance and consent form template linked above.

Once an ethics application has been submitted, and a final decision has been made by the reviewer(s), the Ethics Officer will send the response to the applicant. There are four possible responses: ‘Approved,’ ‘Approved with Suggested Amendments,’ ‘Compulsory Changes Required’ (in this case the application will need to be re-submitted), or ‘Not Approved.’

Applicants are advised to submit their ethics application at least 3 weeks (15 working days) in advance of the date on which they hope to commence their research.

Ethics Reviewers 

Ethics Reviewers

The Department of History administers the University Ethics Procedure and grants ethics approval for research undertaken by its students and staff. The Ethics Officer is responsible for the administration of the procedure on a day-to-day basis. Ethics applications are reviewed by departmental members of staff who have been nominated as ethics reviewers. The University Research Ethics Committee provides Guidance for Ethics Reviewers, which includes a Reviewer Checklist, a Quick Reference Guide for New Ethics Reviewers, and more detailed Guidance for University Ethics Reviewers.

For a staff-led or a supervised postgraduate (PGR), application, a minimum of three ethics reviewers is required to undertake a research ethics review. None of the ethics reviewers may have any conflict of interest with the application (for PGR applications, for instance, this means that the applicant’s supervisors cannot serve as ethics reviewers). A lead ethics reviewer will be appointed by the Ethics Officer, to consider the decision and comments made by each of the reviewers, and to make a final decision regarding the outcome and the comments to be communicated to the applicant. See the Reviewer Guide to the Online Ethics Review System and the Lead Reviewer Guide to the Online Ethics Review System.

When an undergraduate or postgraduate-taught (PGT) student requires ethics approval for an individual research project, the student’s supervisor is responsible for classifying the research as either ‘low risk’ or ‘potentially high risk.’ For the University Research Ethics Committee’s definitions of categories of ethical risk see Section 3.1.4, ‘Assessing ethical risk’ of ‘The University Procedure in practice.’

Only one ethics reviewer is required to review ‘low risk’ research applications from supervised PGT or UG students. In the Department of History, this ethics reviewer will be the student’s supervisor. See the Supervisor Guide to the Online Ethics Review System.

For a potentially ‘high risk’ research application from an undergraduate or postgraduate-taught (PGT) student, a minimum of two ethics reviewers is required to undertake an ethics review. In the Department of History, one of the ethics reviewers will be the student’s supervisor. The other ethics reviewer must not have any conflict of interest with the application. In these cases, the supervisor is usually the ‘lead’ ethics reviewer.

Once the ethics reviewers have completed their reviews, the lead ethics reviewer will consider the the comments and recommendation by each of the reviewers, and make a final decision. The Ethics Officer will send the response to the applicant. There are four possible responses: ‘Approved,’ ‘Approved with Suggested Amendments,’ ‘Compulsory Changes Required’ (in this case the application will need to be re-submitted), or ‘Not Approved.’

If there is a significant, fundamental difference of opinion between ethics reviewers about the ethics of a proposed piece of research, then the application must be reviewed by a group of at least three members of the Department of History’s Ethics Review Panel, none of whom should have a conflict of interest with respect to the project in question. The Department of History’s Ethics Review Panel consists of the Ethics Officer, the Director of Research and Innovation, all current staff in the Department of History who have previously served as the Department’s Research Ethics Officer, and any other members of staff nominated by the Research Committee.

If the members of the Department of History’s Ethics Review Panel cannot reach a consensus, then the University Research Ethics Committee (UREC) will undertake an ethics review of the application.

 Research Ethics Officer

Research Ethics Officer

Dr Simon Stevens

A departmental member of staff is designated as the Research Ethics Officer, whose responsibilities include:

  • To act as the first point of contact to staff and students with queries regarding the University’s Ethics Review Procedure;
  • To disseminate key information to staff and students regarding the Ethics Review Procedure;
  • To raise awareness and encourage discussion of ethical issues in research within the Department and promote engagement with the Ethics Review Procedure;
  • To oversee the administration of the University Research Ethics Procedure within the Department on a day-to-day basis;
  • To distribute ethics applications to ethics reviewers via the online system and to appoint lead reviewers where appropriate;
  • To provide written confirmation of the ethics decision to the applicant;
  • To check applicants have included all necessary information in their application;
  • To ensure, as far as possible, an equitable spread of workload between ethics reviewers;
  • To liaise with key contacts in the University Research Ethics Committee (UREC) to keep abreast of developments in, and changes to, the Ethics Review Procedure.

The Research Ethics Officer is assisted by the Department’s Ethics Administrator, Mr Gwyn Jones.