The Ethics Process

If your research involves humans (or human material or personal data) then you will have to engage with the university’s ethics approval process. Now that interdisciplinary collaborations and applied research projects are becoming common, it’s vital every researcher has an appreciation of what research ethics involves in case it becomes relevant to them. Research using social media also falls under ethics procedures – there's a useful guide that explores this in more depth if it applies to you.  

Ethical approval is a formal university procedure to ensure that rigorous standards are being applied to protect the dignity, rights and welfare of research participants (and researchers). The need for this administrative intervention is clear when we reflect on past horrors such as Nazi experiments on concentration camp victims or the Tuskagee syphilis trials (more examples are given in this excellent article by Anthony Wrigley.    

So what is the process?

Old fashioned library filing system made of small wooden draws with brass alphabet labels

Image credit to Erol Ahmed via

There are two critical points about ethical approval: 

  1. You must obtain ethics approval BEFORE you start your research. 

  2. You must stick to the details of application that was approved, or you will need to seek reapproval. 

So how do you find out more and get ethics approval? At the University of Glasgow ethics approval is handled internally by the four Colleges. The exception is clinical research: this is covered externally by the NHS Research Ethics Committee (the West of Scotland Research Ethics Service for this university). Additionally, if you are conducting research overseas then you may also need to gain further ethics approval there in accordance with any local requirements. 

Each of our four colleges has a website with details of their internal process, links to the relevant forms and support for making an application: 

The university also has a central ethics committee which has more of an overseeing role, handling appeals and updating our policies etc.  

Research ethics is a critical consideration in Research Integrity: the second commitment in the Concordat to support Research Integrity is “We are committed to ensuring that research is conducted according to appropriate ethical, legal and professional frameworks, obligations and standards” (p.13). Journals now require proof of ethics approval when manuscripts are submitted: you can get a good idea of the complexity of this by scanning some of the case studies on the Committee of Publication Ethics (COPE) website

Your supervisor should be able to give advice and point you in the direction of your College ethics administrator if you need more information on this. Local training should also be available from your Graduate Office. Just make sure you get appropriate approval before you start your research! 

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