What are the ethical issues involved in research?

Ethical issues are manifest in a wide variety of research activities and arise especially when the conduct of research involves the interests and rights of others.

The adoption of an ethical position in respect of such research requires that the researcher observes and protects the rights of would-be participants and systematically acts to permit the participants to exercise those rights in full accordance with UK law.

Ethical practice in such cases requires that participants and/or legal guardians, at a minimum, be fully informed, free to volunteer, free to opt out at any time without redress, and be fully protected in regard to safety according to the limits of best practice.

The University Ethics Framework recognises and requires research to accord with the commonly accepted ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, non-maleficence, confidentiality and integrity, other than in exceptional circumstances requiring approval from the Research Ethics Committee.

When does research require ethical approval?

If research (at any level) involves one of the following, it will normally require ethical approval:

  • Research involving human participants or the use of material derived from human participants (this includes questionnaires and interviews).
  • Research involving the use of any personal data.
  • Research involving animals (this applies to all animals, including invertebrates, fish and other non-protected species, and includes behavioural and observation studies).
  • Research that has the potential to raise social issues or have any environmental impact.

The same approval processes apply to research carried out by undergraduate, masters’ students, PhD candidates, postdoctoral researchers and for staff research projects.

It is the responsibility of the researcher to complete the processes for ethical approval. It is the responsibility of research supervisors to ensure the researchers they are supervising have completed the appropriate ethical approval process prior to commencing research. Ethical approval cannot be given once the study has started. Staff should ask their Research Group Leader to act as research supervisor for the purposes of completing the e-ethics form.

You are not required to complete this ethics review process if your project already has ethical approval from another recognised body; although researchers should inform the Committee that appropriate ethical approval is in place before work can begin. Where research is being conducted by staff or students in more than one College in the University or more than one Institution, the research should be ethically reviewed in one of the Colleges or Institutions, taking into account the location of the Principal Investigator and the ethical review structures in place in each College or Institution. Where research is carried out outside the UK, researchers are expected to seek local ethical approval from a properly constituted and independent ethics committee and to comply with local ethical and regulatory standards. If local review is not available or appropriate then such research must be reviewed by the Geography Ethics Committee.

What are the procedures for applying for ethical approval?

All Ethics applications are made via the E-Ethics web-based system. This can be found at

Ethical approval should be carried out prior to starting research. For funded research, this will normally be after the grant has been awarded. Researchers should discuss the ethical issues with their research supervisor or research group leader. Researchers are welcome to consult the Committee for advice at any stage, especially for more complex cases needing ‘Track B’ approval (see below). 

Most research will be approved via the ‘Track A’ route of the online e-ethics system. This creates a record of the proposed methods, research participants and agreed ethical best practice. It is completed by the researcher, reviewed and signed by the research supervisor, and accepted by the Chair of the Ethics Committee. All boxes on the form should be completed. Project information and consent sheets should be attached when relevant. Research supervisors should make relevant notes in the box for reviewer’s comments. Incomplete forms cannot be approved. Please consult the Guide to completing the e-ethics form. You may also find it helpful to consult the FAQ on information and consent forms (.pdf) before submitting your project for approval.

Research involving animals, children, vulnerable groups, ethically sensitive topics or some research practices (such as covert research) requires approval via the ‘Track B’ route of the online e-ethics system.  ‘Track B’ submissions are completed by the researcher, reviewed and signed by the research supervisor as above, but will have additional scrutiny from the Ethics Committee prior to acceptance.

If your research is likely to require ‘Track B’ approval you should contact the Chair at an early stage for advice. Many aspects of research considered under the ‘Track B’ route are evaluated by the committee through judgements weighing the potential harms and benefits of the research. This takes into account the benefits of the study, soundness of methodology and experience of the researcher. The Geography Ethics Committee has prepared an Advice Note on Working with Children and Young People. Please read this carefully before completing your e-ethics application. We do occasionally approve undergraduates to work with under 18 year olds, but are extremely unlikely to approve undergraduate research proposals using covert research methods or involving multiple ethical issues (e.g. work with young people on ethically sensitive issues).

The Geography Ethics Committee is unable to approve research involving adults without the capacity to consent, work with offenders, the armed services, research in clinical settings or with a clinical trials design, and research involving harms to animals. These require review by nationally recognised and independent research ethics committees. If your proposed research involves these groups, please consult the Chair, or contact Gail Seymour of the University Ethics Committee for further advice.  

What is the role of the Geography Ethics Committee?

The primary purpose of the Geography Ethics Committee is to maintain procedures for the consideration of ethical issues arising from the teaching, research and other activities of the discipline. The Chair is appointed with specific responsibility for the management of such procedures, with Committee members representing the different research groups and researchers within the discipline.

The committee is chaired by Gail Davies.

The Committee members are:

  • Clive Barnett (Human Geography Research),
  • Pepe Romanillos (Director of Postgraduate Research and Human Geography Research)
  • Jon Cinnamon (Human Geography and Health-related Research)
  • Paula Crutchlow (Postgraduate representative)
  • Matt Finn (Undergraduate Methods Teaching and Human Geography Research)
  • Ted Feldpausch (Physical Geography Research) and
  • Louisa Evans (Human Geography and International Research)

The Geography Ethics Committee sits within and is guided by the University Ethics Organisation. The Chair works with the University Ethics Committee to ensure compliance with the University Ethics policy and guidelines and provide feedback to inform the development of guidelines where relevant.

Where can I get more information?

Local Policies

The University of Exeter is not responsible for the information on the below pages.

Useful guidelines and codes of practice

Funding council information

Legal frameworks and external ethical review

Ethical research practice overlaps with many areas of legislation protecting participant’s rights around consent, safeguarding and data. A selection of these are listed below. The Geography ethics procedures are intended to help students address (e.g. data protection) or avoid (e.g. mental capacity) these issues in their research. Staff and PhD students whose research explicitly engages these issues should seek advice from the Ethics Committee.