Communicaitons, Media and Journalism research group

Levels of risk explained

In order to assess the levels of 'risk' of a research project, guidance on what may be deemed high, low and no risk are provided below. University guidelines on these parameters have been consulted and adapted for the Department of Journalism Studies purposes as permitted by the regulations.

High risk

Potentially 'high risk' research is that which involves 'particularly vulnerable participants' – directly, or in terms of personal data about them – and/or addresses highly sensitive topics. In general terms, people who come under this category include, but are not restricted, to the following.

(a) People whose competence to exercise informed consent is in doubt, such as:

infants and children under 18 years of age;
people who lack mental capacity, may be at risk of losing capacity or have fluctuating capacity; for example people with learning disabilities, people with dementia or conditions that give rise to cognitive impairments such as stroke;
people who suffer from psychiatric or personality disorders, including those conditions in which capacity to consent may fluctuate; and
people who may have only a basic or elementary knowledge of the language in which the research is being conducted.

(b) People who may socially not be in a position to exercise unfettered informed consent, such as:

  • people who depend on the protection of, or are controlled and influenced by, research gatekeepers (e.g. school pupils, children and young people in care, members of the armed forces, young offenders, prisoners, asylum seekers, organisational employees)
  • family members of the researcher(s)
  • in general, people who appear to feel they have no real choice on whether or not to participate

(c) People whose circumstances may unduly influence their decisions to consent, such as:

  • people with disabilities
  • people who are frail or in poor health
  • elderly people
  • people who are in care
  • relatives and friends of participants considered to be vulnerable
  • people who feel that participation will result in access to better treatment and/or support for them or others
  • people who anticipate any other perceived benefits of participation
  • people who, by participating in research, can obtain perceived and/or benefit to which they otherwise would not have access e.g. possibility of a new medication being available, payment for participation

For further discussion of research ethics issues with respect to the participation of vulnerable people, see Research Ethics Policy Notes no. 2 (PDF, 155KB) and no. 6 (PDF, 103KB).

Potentially highly sensitive topics include:

  • 'race' or ethnicity
  • political opinion
  • trade union membership
  • religious, spiritual or other beliefs
  • physical or mental health conditions
  • sex life, sexuality and/or gender identity
  • identity of an individual resulting from processing of genetic or biometric data
  • abuse (child, adult)
  • nudity and the body
  • criminal or illegal activities
  • political asylum
  • conflict situations
  • personal violence
  • terrorism or violent extremism
  • personal finances

A key word qualifying all of the above lists is 'potentially'. It should never simply be assumed that the above kinds of research participants and topics are under all circumstances 'vulnerable' or 'risky': an unreflective 'box ticking' approach in this respect is strongly discouraged. In the first place, researchers should reflect upon the specificities of each research project, and the risks and vulnerabilities it may, or may not, present or create should be documented and evaluated as part of the ethics review process.

In the second, departments are encouraged to develop local definitions of risk and vulnerability that are appropriate to the nature of their particular research activities, providing these definitions are endorsed by the UREC.

Finally, it cannot be emphasised too strongly that conducting research ethically is not a matter of avoiding potentially high-risk research. It is, rather, about preparing for and managing risks; it is a matter of being risk-aware, not risk-averse.

Low risk

Low risk research activity is that which does not involve 'particularly vulnerable participants' – whether directly, or in terms of personal data about them – and/or does not have as its main focus 'highly sensitive topics' as outlined above.

No risk

Research which is not considered high or low risk should be assessed as having no risk by the supervisor. In declaring that the research has no risk, students must include a statement in the methods section that indicates that the research has no risks, and should indicate why, illustrating that they understand research ethics implications.

If students have reused data collected by another person, students must indicate that the data was ethically collected; that is, they should know whether they are using viable data. The decision to categorise research as having 'no risk' should be taken in consultation with the student's supervisor.