Research ethics of data use and reuse

Thanks to Debbie Knight, Di Hopkins and Becky Case for another interesting Research Bites session on the theme of Research Ethics and Ethical review process at Lancaster University.

The slides are available, courtesy of the presenters.

If it’s out there, can I use it?

The primary question raised in this session was whether data relating to human subjects which is in the public domain – whether shared via a data repository, presented as open data, or online, e.g. on social media – can be reused in research simply because it’s available.

The answer was, ‘Not necessarily’.

Ethical review is still necessary as the participants or subjects may not have given their consent to the research.

Primary data

For studies using primary data, such as social media posts, interviews or survey responses being collected for the first time, it will be necessary to provide as much supporting information as you can, such as information sheets for participants, and a sample of the questions being asked.

Applications should be made to the Faculty Ethics Committee, and will likely be reviewed by a sub- or full committee as cases can be complex.

Secondary data

It is still necessary to submit your research through ethical review when re-analysing existing data, e.g. reusing data which has already been made available. This is mainly to ensure that the researcher has applied the principles of:

  • informed consent
  • anonymity
  • security

While anonymity is a principle, it may not necessarily be a requirement, depending on your context. Also, consider whether combining and re-using two datasets may unintentionally expose participants.

[Aside: Research Bites readers might also be interested in this write up of the Sharing Qualitative Data workshop, from April 2017]


There is a need to potential reuse of the data generated in your research at an early stage. Ideally, participants will be fully informed of the potential reuse of the research data on the information sheet which is available before they are asked to consent.

You might also find this guidance on writing Data Management Plans useful.

It was acknowledged during the session that best practice in data management includes planning for re-use and sharing of research data, and this should be done with consideration of the ethical implications of doing so.

Example questions

Every question is better understood the full context of the research being proposed, so please seek advice from your Faculty Research Ethics Committee key contacts if you have questions.

It is helpful to the committee to supply any supporting information such to highlight any issues, and help them to understand how you have considered them.

Can I include Terms & Conditions of online platforms (e.g. Twitter) in an ethics application?

Does  it make a difference if the platform is open or closed?

How can I gain consent from people unable to read, in other languages, or from people of different cultures?

Can I re-use data from news or published sources? This is considered as ‘the literature’, so yes, but if in doubt, ask!

Do I need ethical approval if I’m using data from leaked documents in my research? Yes!

Lancaster Data Conversations: data security and confidentiality, Thursday 4th May 2017

Readers may also be interested in Lancaster Data Conversations this week on the topic of data security and confidentiality.




Research Ethics: Ethical review – an overview

Firstly, many thanks to Becky Case, Debbie Knight and Diane Hopkins for the interesting and informative Research Bites session on the Ethics approval process at Lancaster University.

Secondly, apologies to anyone who had hoped to stream in or watch a recording. Research Bites in March and April will not be recorded/streamed. The LU Ethics Team have kindly shared the slides from this session.

Lancaster University Ethics Committees

There are now three Faculty-focused Ethics Committees which deal with the majority of Ethics applications, and report to the University Research Ethics Committee (UREC). Some applications are referred to UREC, but most are dealt with at these committees.

The webpages are full of useful information about the process, including supporting documentation and contact details.

Ethics approval process

Depending on the complexity of the ethical considerations, applications can be turned around in a couple of weeks, e.g. when there has been prior approval, a month or two e.g. if the full committee needs to decide, or even go on for much longer.

Delays can happen when:

  • the researcher doesn’t supply enough information
  • the researcher doesn’t start the process early enough, or at all, or
  • the approval needs to be referred to other committees which only meet at certain times

The overwhelming message was to consider first whether ethical approval is needed at all, and second, get in touch with the Research Ethics Officers early on.

Ethical mindset

The presentation and discussion recognised that while Research Ethics approval can be – and unfortunately, sometimes is – seen as a series of hoops to jump through before cracking on with the research, it is in fact an integral part of the research design process. In developing the ethics approval application, the researcher is considering:

  • recruitment of participants
  • informed consent from participants
  • research methodology
  • potential risk to the researcher and/or participants
  • policies from the University, funder and even publishers


There were many interested questions asked during the session, though the majority of answers seemed to be that each case is different. Something that seems simple om the surface can reveal itself to be quite ‘high risk’. However, while alarm bells may ring, that is by no means a reason that the research cannot take place. Rather the researcher will need to consider how, for example, participants could be made aware of the sensitivity nature of the study, or an appropriate way to understand the research and give/refuse consent.

  • How long is approval likely to take?
  • Is there such a thing as retrospective ethics approval?
  • Can one application cope with different ethical risks/considerations, e.g. human participants and lone working? (Yes)
  • Are any groups e.g. children or disabled people considered ‘vulnerable’?
  • Should I apply for ethics before contacting prospective participants, e.g. a teaser for recruitment, or scoping out organisations to work with?

If you have similar questions, please get in touch with the Research Ethics Officers.

Research Ethics in March and April

We’re pleased to announce a new theme on Research Ethics. The University’s Ethics Team will be presenting three brand new sessions, so please come along to learn about the ethics process, common considerations, and ask questions.

Ethical review at Lancaster University – an overview.

Tuesday 21st March, 12pm, Bowland North SR03.
This overview will help researchers understand the university’s current ethics processes which were introduced last summer. It will also provide valuable advice about where to find materials and guidance for preparing ethics applications.
Lancaster University Research Ethics Team

Ethical collection of research data; if it’s out there can I use it?

Tuesday 4th April, 12pm, Bowland North SR03.
This session will consider the ethical implications of a variety of data collection methods.
Lancaster University Research Ethics Team

What’s the Difference? Ethics at Lancaster University – Common themes and FAQs.

Tuesday 25th April, 12pm, Bowland North SR03.
In this session we will look at a variety of common themes within ethics applications and frequently asked questions.
Lancaster University Research Ethics Team

As always, just turn, no need to book.

Research bites: an introduction to Digital Preservation

On Thursday 12th January I gave a Research Bites session on Digital Preservation. I’ve talked about this topic before and the advice I gave was the same – you can read about it here.  These are the slides I used:

which contains the basics of our approach and advice for researchers to ensure their research is preserved for the long term.

If we are going to value data we need to give it value.

Over the past twelve months I have slightly changed the emphasis of my approach to digital preservation. The secret to successful digital preservation is not about seeking a technical solution – it’s about good practice from the outset. If we are going to value data we need to give it value.  The process of preservation is one of collaboration to achieve the goal of long term access.

This means we should take the time to create useful and rich metadata; which gives context and meaning to the data. It doesn’t matter how sophisticated our technology is, if the data doesn’t make sense, or can’t be interpreted then there isn’t any point in keeping it.

It’s not just a requirement it’s also an opportunity.

Ultimately  the researcher is the one who is best placed to decide what data is of value and how best to keep it usable and accessible. This means preserving not just the raw data but the context as well. It’s not just a requirement it’s also an opportunity to highlight and promote excellent research undertaken by the university.

If you want to know more about managing your research data and making it available, now and into the future please get in touch or look at our website for more.


Research Bites in January 2017: Research data and infrastructure

Research Bites starts the New Year on the theme of Research data and Infrastructure.

Just turn up, no need to book! Tea/coffee and a cake provided.

Selecting data for long term preservation

Thursday 12th January, 12pm, Bowland North SR3. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
An introduction to Digital Preservation: How to keep data safe and accessible for the long term.
Rachel MacGregor, Digital Archivist, Library

Data Management Plans made easy

Monday 16th January, 12pm, Bowland North SR1. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
Get an introduction to the DMPonline system, and some useful tips that will make the writing of a Data Management Plan easier.
Hardy Schwamm, Research Data & Repository Manager, Library

Using Qualtrics to gather survey data

Thursday 19th January, 12pm, Bowland North SR3. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
Find out about this versatile, powerful and user-friendly survey tool for gathering research data.
Chris Dixon, Head of Service Delivery & Operations, ISS

How to mine and store bitcoins for free! Big data and high-end computing

Monday 23rd January, 12pm, Bowland North SR1. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
An Introductory talk on what Lancaster University can offer for those tasks that need massive computing power, including High End Computing (HEC), bespoke research compute resources and big data analysis.
Matt Storey, Technical Co-ordinator, ISS

February 2017

February’s theme will be Open Research.

In November: Information seeking and management

Research Bites is back in November on the theme of Information seeking and management. These short, informal lunchtime sessions aim to deliver useful, practical information to researchers, and give you the chance to ask questions. More about Research Bites.

New live webcast

There is no need to register, just turn up. If you are not based in Lancaster, you can now watch a live stream of the session at 12.00 GMT by following the links below. Sessions will also be recorded and made available via the Recordings archive.

Top 5 time-saving tips for OneSearch

Wednesday 9th November, 12pm, Bowland North SR15. Live stream at 12.00 GMT.
Hear about these essential tips for making the most of the Library’s discovery tool.
Tanya Williamson, Academic Liaison Librarian, Library

Get better at literature searching

Wednesday 16th November, 12pm, Bowland North SR3. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
Learn how to tackle the most common literature searching problems.
Tanya Williamson, Academic Liaison Librarian, Library

Scopus: Time-saving tips for navigating peer-reviewed academic literature

Friday 18th November, 12pm, Bowland North SR3. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
Learn how to save searches, quickly analyse and download full-text results and take advantage of current awareness features including alerts.
Caroline Gibson, Academic Liaison Librarian, Library

Scholarly publishing and open access: things to consider

Monday 21st November, 12pm, Bowland North SR9. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
Get an introduction to the benefits of open access publishing, and learn about the available funding.
Louise Tripp, Academic Liaison Librarian and Open Access Manager, Library

Research data management: things to consider

Thursday 24th November, 12pm, Bowland North SR1. Live stream at 12.00 GMT
Learn about the best practice when it comes to managing your research data.
Hardy Schwamm, Research Data & Repository Manager, Library.

As always, tea and coffee and something sweet will be provided.

‘Research Data’ recordings now available from January 2016

Thanks to all of the presenters and participants who have contributed their expertise and questions to Research Bites sessions so far in 2016!

Recordings of most of the sessions on Research data in January are now available from the Recordings archive here on the blog.

If you have questions about:

  • Managing your research data
  • Preserving your data
  • Data management plans
  • Depositing research data into Pure
  • Sharing data online
  • Research Data Management policies of funders or the University

please contact Hardy Schwamm and Rachel MacGregor at

If you have questions about:

  • Data encryption
  • Information Security
  • Lancaster University Box (cloud storage)

please contact ISS Help and Support