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Working with human participants: ethical approval and data protection

If you are planning to collect data from human participants (for example, by conducting interviews or administering surveys), or use data collected from human participants, you will need to plan well in advance to ensure that you have obtained ethical approval before starting work on your project and have given consideration to how you are going to handle the information you collect.

1. Ethical approval

Ethics review is required to ensure that the research conforms to the ethical standards expected by the Department and the University and to the code of ethical principles and standards. It is also used to assist staff and students in reflecting upon and promoting the best possible ethical research practice.

Seeking ethical approval

Undergraduate or graduate students should consult their supervisor in the first instance to identify any ethical issues that might arise from work planned on a dissertation, research paper or project.

Staff, or any other person conducting research on University premises, should seek advice from the local ethics committee or ethics contact in the Department in which the research will be carried out. In HPS the Administrator can provide advice and the Head of Department has responsibility for approving projects which have straightforward ethical issues that are easily addressed at the planning stage. In most cases, ethics approval will be granted at the Department level. However, cases that are particularly complex or sensitive, or those presenting a conflict of interest, will be referred to the School of Humanities and Social Sciences Research Ethics Committee (REC) for formal review. This can take up to three weeks (longer if revisions are required), so advanced planning is crucial if you do not want the start of your project to be delayed. The School REC considers applications on a case-by-case basis, and is governed by the University's policies on research integrity and research ethics. This page provides details on the procedures for ethical review, and links to additional resources:

Research Integrity: Research Ethics

In order for the Head of Department to be able to decide whether to grant ethical approval to your project, or if there is a need to escalate the proposal to the School REC, you should complete an Ethical Approval proforma, and provide details of your research proposal, participant information sheets and consent forms:

Application for ethical approval of a research project

Please submit these materials to the HPS Administrator by email in the first instance. Do NOT send directly to the SHSS.

All ethical review will be undertaken by two members of staff. For those enrolled on the PhD, MPhil, Part III and Part II this will be conducted in the first instance by a supervisor and the Head of Department. For other researchers the review will be conducted by the sponsor and the Head of Department.

Useful information

Further information about ethics in research at the University of Cambridge can be found on the University's Research Integrity website:

Research Integrity: Research Ethics

The HSS REC draws primarily on the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics:

Economic and Social Research Council: Research Ethics

2. Interviews and informed consent

As part of the procedure for obtaining ethical approval, you will need to put together an information sheet and consent form, which together will make it possible for you to obtain written informed consent from your participants.

These documents will shape your interactions with your interviewees, and in some cases will be the first substantial encounter you have with them. Consent forms and information sheets affect the kind of interview that is possible and vary according to disciplinary styles. The kind of consent that you ask for will also affect how you are able to use your recording, transcript and field notes in your research.

We have put together some points to think about when drafting your information sheets and consent forms. These include some reflections on how to select subjects and how to approach them for the first time.

  • Your information sheet will describe your project. Think about how to make your project appealing to your participants. Think about the amount and kind of information you want to convey. Be aware that some interviewees will have ongoing stakes in historical narratives about the work they were involved in, or those narratives might be politically sensitive. Think about how much information to convey – for a focused research interview, it may be necessary to include more detailed information about what you plan to write, and you may want to include specific questions that you want the interviewee to think about before you meet. In others, it might be important to make the scope of the project more open ended, in order not to shut down lines of discussion.
  • Your consent form will offer your interviewee the option of going on and off record in your interview, and to stop the recording if they want.
  • Your consent form may offer the interviewee the option to be anonymous – think about whether this is possible and desirable for your project. For sociological and anthropological projects, anonymity is necessary, but for some historical research certain actors need to have a clear identity, and for a person well known in their area, it may not be possible to keep that from readers (this is different to many oral history interviews). Moreover, for some interviewees, the extent to which they are known might be valuable for your research.
  • Some researchers send their transcripts to interviewees to be checked, or even send them quotes before publishing them. Sometimes this is necessary in order to get someone to speak to you, but committing to this on your consent form can cause problems later down the line. So think carefully about whether you want to give your interviewees the power to veto passages or arguments in which you use their words.
  • The question of anonymity also bears on what you plan to do with your interview once you have the recording. You will be required to explain to the HPS Ethics Committee how you intend to keep your data secure. But you will also need to think about whether you want the interview to be used only by yourself, or whether it could also be made available to others. If you're carrying out a more substantial oral history interview (these will often be many hours long), think about whether you want the interview to be archived in a permanent repository for other researchers to use. Some organisations that host such collections – such as the Wellcome and the American Institute of Physics – might provide training courses and funding for such interviews; they tend to have their own consent forms that you would need to use before the interview.

Several examples of information sheets and consent forms from staff and students working in Cambridge and in other institutions can be found on the HPS Research Moodle site.

The UK Oral History Society has some very useful professional advice on oral history interviews.

If time permits, interview training can be extremely useful for learning how to choose subjects, how to recruit subjects, how to plan questions, how to carry out the interview and what observations to make during it, what to do with transcripts and field notes and, how to use them for research. (Please discuss and plan with your supervisor what kind of training is realistic in the time available.)

3. Data protection

Any work undertaken involving the processing of data which relates to identifiable living individuals must comply with the EU's General Data Protection Regulations 2018 (GPDR), meaning you will need to think carefully about how you are going to manage the data you collect. The Departmental Administrator is Data Protection Officer for HPS and can provide further advice.

The University retains control at all times of any personal data used by staff and students in the course of their work. The data should be stored in the Department for the agreed amount of time, and not used again by the student without written consent from the Head of Department. In practical terms, this means the data collected should be submitted as a confidential appendix to the piece of work concerned. The agreed data retention period should be marked on the front of the appendix so that the data can be deleted or destroyed when it is no longer required. If the intention is that the work should be published at a later date, then a retention period of five years is appropriate. If the work is not going to be published then that data should be destroyed after the final marks for the course have been announced. Permission must be obtained from the Head of Department before any data is disclosed to either a research subject or an external party.

Processing of personal data

Personal data is any information which identifies a living individual, either on its own or in conjunction with other information, and can be electronic or hard copy material. The GPDR 2018 covers any action performed with personal data (collecting, recording, consulting, amending, using, disclosing, deleting etc).

Consent must be obtained from research subjects being asked to provide personal data. The consent form should explain what information is being collected, what it will be used for, how long it will be retained, who it is likely to be shared with, and whether it is likely to be published. If the work involves sensitive personal data (ethnicity, political opinions, religion, trade union membership, physical or mental health, sexuality, criminal record) then explicit consent must be sought. The consent form should be signed by the individual to indicate their agreement.

Unless required by the nature of the research project, data should be anonymised. The use of a code or key to identify individuals may be appropriate in some scenarios but note that this does not fully anonymise the data; all identifiers need to be destroyed for data to be fully anonymised.

Where work involving personal data is undertaken in collaboration with other bodies or institutions a clear agreement needs to be in place outlining who controls the data, what data will be shared and how. The research subjects need to be made aware of these details.

Under the GDPR, there are six principles. Personal data must be processed following these principles so that the data are:

  1. Processed fairly, lawfully and transparently – and only if there is a valid 'legal basis' for doing so.
  2. Processed only for specified, explicit and legitimate purposes.
  3. Adequate, relevant and limited.
  4. Accurate (and rectified if inaccurate).
  5. Not kept for longer than necessary.
  6. Processed securely – to preserve the confidentiality, integrity and availability of the personal data.

Under the Data Protection Act 1998 there were eight principles, but two of these (about the rights of data subjects and transfers of personal data outside the European Economic Area) are covered in different ways in the GDPR. Depending on the context, there are full or partial exemptions from the principles when processing personal data for specific purposes, including academic research.

Non-compliance with any of these elements could result in the University breaching the law, so proposed work involving the processing of personal data must be subject to an approval procedure with the supervisor/sponsor acting as a first line of control.

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