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

Original Image: http://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/wooden-tile/e/ethics.html (Image credit: Nick Youngson – http://nyphotographic.com/ CC BY-SA 3.0)


It was great to welcome back Becky Case, Debbie Knight and Diane Hopkins for more on research ethics following their previous Research Bites session on the Ethics approval process at Lancaster University.

The ethical mindset

When considering ethics the first question researchers ask is: “Can I do X?” .  The short answer is always:  YES – if it is ethical.  Is what you are trying to do morally justifiable for your research goals?

This question should be at the heart of every research proposal; the ethics committee are looking for an ethical mindset.  Consider the following questions:

  • Are you trying to do good and trying to avoid doing harm?
  • How are you dealing with personal data that has been freely given?
  • Are you respecting that data?

Conduct your research with an ethical mindset

Almost all ethical issues have to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis but there are some themes which are common to many research projects.

Anonymity vs confidentiality

There is sometimes confusion between what is meant by “anonymised” and “confidential”.


Asserting that data will be anonymised means that individuals cannot be identified from the data.  You will be expected to anonymise data and make it clear to people what it is you are going to do.  Bear in mind however that some data is hard/impossible to anonymise. Also be aware that there are some people do not want their data anonymised.


Confidential is a very difficult concept – people have different ideas about what this means. The lay person is likely to understand this as not sharing the data with anyone.  This would preclude sharing the research in any way.  The academic may understand confidentiality as capable of being shared with an academic audience or that the data can be shared if it is anonymous.

  • There are limits to confidentiality as in some areas there might be a statutory obligation to report information, especially where there is a duty of care.
  • Do not promise things which cannot be honoured.
  • Ensure participants understand what is going to happen to their data – good communication is vital!

Researcher vs counsellor

There is a fundamental difference between being a researcher and being a counsellor.

When conducting interviews with people, ask yourself the question:

What would you do in the event that people become upset?

The natural human response is not always the correct ethical response – your role is as a researchers not a counsellor and this should not be undertaken unless you are qualified to do so.  There is guidance available on safeguarding issues and you should be aware of these when dealing with potentially complex issues.

Informed consent

This is key to a good ethical approach.  It can be written or verbal.

There are several considerations relating to participation/non-participation which need to be made explicit at the outset:

  • What will happens to the and their data at the end of the project?
  • What happens if the participant changes their minds about taking part in the project?
  • What will happen to their data in this scenario?

You need to be able to show that you have considered all of this when planning your project and method of gathering data eg via forms, tick boxes etc.

Paying for participation

Paying people for participation is acceptable depending on the circumstances.  It is reasonable to pay travel expenses or as a thank you but it must not be used coercively. For example if a person decides to withdraw from the project they cannot be “threatened” with non-payment.

Bear in mind:

  • the effect of payment on benefit claimants.
  • working overseas a small amount of money here can be a significant sum.


Assessing vulnerability is not always easy – some people may be vulnerable at certain times and not at others.  Focus on capacity to consent.

Vulnerable vs non-vulnerable

You do not necessarily need parental consent for children to take part but it is vital that no-one, child or adult, is coerced into taking part in research.  Often the context in which the research takes place is key – children in a classroom. a dementia sufferer with their family etc.

Determining capacity to consent

The ethics committee will be looking for a description of how you are going to determine capacity to consent.  Do not make claims involving clinical judgements about people if you are not qualified or able to make them.   Do not assume consent to take part is a one-off process and it must be easy for participants to withdraw if they change their mind.

Widening participation

This should be balanced against the need to widen participation in research. Because of perceptions of vulnerability certain groups eg those with disabilities are often excluded from research.  This negatively affects outcomes and participation.

Consent forms

There are templates for consent forms if you are having trouble getting started on lots of help available on the sorts of things you should be putting on the consent form.
The consent form is vital and protects the researcher as much as the participant.


There were various questions raised after the presentation including around

  • Retrospective ethical approval
  • Research with children as participants
  • The role of researcher vs teacher
  • The use of human tissue samples


Ethics is not about getting in the way of research its about informing and facilitating!

If in doubt – get in touch with the Research Ethics Officers!


Research bites: digital preservation for research data

This is a Research Bites session I delivered on Wednesday 20th January 2016.  You can see the slides here:

What is digital preservation?

Back-up is not the same as preservation: “archiving” data generally means backing it up.  Preservation implies that things will be accessible and readable long-term – not corrupted or hidden by out of date formats.

The integrity of data needs to be maintained – even slight alterations could have enormous implications for re-use and verification of data.

Fragility of data storage

Even the most trusted repositories can have funding withdrawn from them and become inaccessible.  See these examples from the past few years:

Tranche Repository

Arts and Humanities Data Service


Some questions you need to ask yourself

Where is the data going to be kept?

How is the data going to be shared and accessed?

How long does it need to be kept for?

How will the costs be covered?

Some other considerations

Ethical considerations:  ensuring that the quality and reliability of the data is maintained as well as the integrity of the data itself.

If the data contains sensitive information it needs to be kept confidential/anonymous – again these are considerations around where and how it is kept.

If the data gathered as part of a research proposal were created by a third party is it certain to be in copyright to the researcher?

Where public money is invested into research it is important that outcomes and data are shared and made available as widely as possible and can help raise research profiles.

How long do we need to keep data for?

It does vary by Research Council and funder but they all acknowledge “long term value” of research data.

Some funders require data to be kept for 10 years from last access.

You can help

What we need from you focuses on the information or metadata which supports the research data. Without context then the data are virtually useless.

Choosing file formats is important.

And we’re here to help you

Our role is to ensure compliance with all the relevant funder requirements and the right systems to ensure that authenticity, integrity and stability of data.

We offer advice and guidance on all aspects of research data management.

We can advise over choosing a suitable repository to suit your area and specific needs.

We advise about appropriate formats and also about the right kind of metadata which is needed

We can also help advise about selection of data.

What to data to keep

This is always a difficult one but RCUK do offer some tips

RCUK’s data policy says data with “acknowledged long term value” should be retained. So what is “acknowledged long term value?

Will the data underpin an article submitted to a journal that has a policy requiring it to be available?

Will data produced through RCUK funding underpin a published research output?

If so then the data needs to be preserved.

Generally it will be the data which makes sense of and supports the published article.

And finally

No one case is the same as another.

We’re here to offer advice and guidance.

Our aim is to support you in creating and maintaining valuable research outcomes, complying with funder expectations and ensuring as much access to research data as possible.

Get in touch if you need further help.

Rachel MacGregor, Digital Archivist

Finding funding opportunities with Research professional

Many thanks to Andrew Wilkinson from the Research & Contracts Support Office for the whistle-stop tour of Research Professional.

A recording of the session will be available soonresprof.

This service provides a comprehensive database of research funding opportunities in the UK, EU and beyond. It also delivers news on the higher education and research sectors.

If you are on the University campus, Research Professional will automatically recognise your affiliation. You will see an ‘Our Institution’ tab. Here you can access predefined searches for Research Council and Horizon 2020 funding.

Searching for funding opportunities is easy, using keywords. Advanced search allows you to build a search based on:

  • All text
  • Discipline
  • Award type
  • Funder
  • Closing date
  • Award amount

Andrew recommends that you create an account using your Lancaster email address in order to save your own searches and email alert preferences. If you are away from the campus, registering with your University email will link you to the institution’s subscription.


How comprehensive is it? Does it cover funding from small charities? Yes it is quite comprehensive, and includes even small funding opportunities from professional societies.

How do I know which discipline to search in? You can use a free text search, which will generate suggested discipline keywords. You can also Browse by discipline.

Can I view successful/unsuccessful bids by Lancaster people? You can no longer do that through Research professional as we no longer pay for that particular service.

How can I find out if a Lancaster person has already applied for a particular funding opportunity? You can do that by contacting the RCSO, who can also supply examples of successful funding applications (with the permission of the applicants).

First series of Research Bites have started

The first six sessions in the Research Bites programme are now being delivered throughout July.

We’ve already delivered ‘Do you need to submit an electronic thesis?’ and ‘Impact factors and all that’ and will be using this blog to provide answers to questions raised during the sessions.

These sessions are all bring held in Bowland North SR 25 at 12pm.

Coming up next:

What about Patents? Thursday 17th July 2014
Learn about the unique nature of patents and how to find them.

What you need to know about Open Access Thursday 24th July 2014
Learn why Open Access is important and how the Library can support you through it.

Social media – tools and tips for researchers Friday 25th July 2014
Get an introduction to how social media can work for you as a researcher.

Open session Q&A Thursday 31st July 2014
We’ll aim to help you get past your research barriers and answer any Library-related questions you have.