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Research ethics

All activities carried out by Birkbeck staff and students that involve one or more of the following require ethical consideration and approval:

  • Human participants (whether participating actively or through observation) - from the perspective of their welfare and interests and duties of care for their personal data
  • Where there are legitimate concerns for the welfare and interests of those carrying out the activity, including where a researcher needs to travel to a location where the Foreign Office has issued advice to travellers which raises concerns about the individuals welfare while in the country
  • Where there is collection or review of individual or case-level administrative data, or archival material, not in the public domain
  • Where there is collection or review of sensitive data derived from social media platforms (e.g. data from closed discussion groups or forums or posted by potentially vulnerable social media users)
  • Animals - from the perspective of their welfare and interests and duties of care
  • The potential to damage or change our cultural heritage
  • Changes to the natural environment
  • The potential for reputation of the individual, the department, the College, the discipline and academia as a whole to be damaged. The welfare and interests of the wider community should also be considered
  • Requiring an individual to step outside accepted regulatory or legal norms
  • Export controls are required for the research

Faculty members are required to familiarise themselves with the College policy documents and related guidelines, and with the ethics codes and principles set out by and relevant professional bodies, such as the ESRC, the British Psychology Association and the British Sociological Society.


  • Before starting to complete the ethics proposal form, please read the responsibilities and procedure guidelines and consider if your research is routine, sensitive or extremely sensitive.
  • Complete the Humanities and Social Sciences ethics application form but do not submit it. Once it is completed, share the URL that is generated by clicking 'finish later' with your supervisor or school ethics officer. They will then review the form and complete the sign off box on page 97 and either return it to you to submit or submit it on your behalf. When you share the URL with them, make sure that you also add all the necessary accompanying information, including completed information sheets, consent forms, and interview schedules, questionnaires for participant research, copies of recruitment adverts etc. Templates for some of these forms are available within the Faculty.
  • The approval is not finalised until the application and all the accompanying documentation have been uploaded to the area designated by your Faculty.
  • All proposals stored in School and Faculty repositories are subject to audit by the Faculty Ethics Committee (FEC) and/or College Ethics Committee (CEC).
  • Please note, some research funders require review by the FEC and the CEC.


  • Rejection of the proposal on ethical grounds. This would only occur if there were fundamental ethical issues with the research, as defined in this policy and by professional ethical guidelines.
  • Referral back to the researcher or student so that the proposal can be amended to address concerns raised by the reviewer. It is the responsibility of the applicant to make any recommended changes and re-submit the amended form together with supporting documentation.
  • Acceptance of a routine proposal
  • Referral to Faculty and/or College Ethics Committee. This will occur for all non-routine applications.
  • Referral back to the researcher or student so that the proposal can be amended to address concerns raised by the reviewer(s). It is the responsibility of the applicant to make any recommended changes and re-submit the amended form together with supporting documentation.
  • Acceptance of a proposal following the Faculty/College Ethics Committee Review.


  • All research and all teaching exercises involving human participants must have received ethical approval at the appropriate level - within the School hosting the programme or by the Faculty Ethics Committee. This is so, no matter where the investigations are carried out. There is not, and possibly cannot be, a completely firm set of criteria for classifying research as ethically acceptable. Birkbeck staff and students are required to abide by ethical principles such as justice, truthfulness, confidentiality, and respect for persons, but also to attend to the evolving understanding of how these principles are expressed in society at a particular time.
  • The Committee's procedures are intended to balance the need to safeguard both participants and researchers, and to apply an efficient and workable set of arrangements. In applying their procedures, the Committee takes account of the law as it applies to health and safety, and the protection of young people, together with the notion of 'reasonable precautions' against threats to the well-being of participants. The Committee reports to the College Ethics Committee.
  • The Committee has the power to scrutinise all research involving human participants or in any of the other areas listed above. When necessary, the Committee shall call upon any other persons with the proper expertise to assist them with their decisions. It has the power to approve or reject research on grounds of ethical acceptability. No investigation shall commence until it has met the conditions laid down by the Committee. If the proposer of an investigation disagrees with the decision of the Faculty Ethics Committee, they can ask that the proposal be referred to the College Ethics Committee. The decision of the College Ethics Committee is final.


Complete the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences online research ethics form.

If the proposal has been assessed as routine by the supervisor, it should be sent by the supervisor to the relevant Ethics Lead to confirm approval. Once approval is confirmed and the documentation uploaded to the relevant repository, the research can commence. The approval is confirmed once all the documentation has been uploaded to the designated area. The Ethics Lead should randomly sample these approvals to ensure that the correct processes are being followed.

If the proposal has been assessed as non-routine by the supervisor, the form should be sent to the Ethics Lead for further consideration. The Ethics Lead should determine whether they consider the proposal as routine or non-routine. If the Ethics Lead considers the proposal as routine they will return the form to the investigator/supervisor who will inform the student that the project may commence once they have uploaded the documentation to the School repository.

If the officer considers the proposal as non-routine it must be referred to the Faculty Ethics Committee. In most cases, applicants will receive a response within four weeks of submission.

Staff proposals for ethics review should be considered by the Ethics Lead. If the Ethics Lead considers the proposal to be routine then they can indicate this and the research can begin may commence once they have uploaded the documentation to the School repository. All non-routine proposals must be referred to Faculty Ethics Committee by the Ethics Lead.

Any reviews which cause a conflict of interest must be referred to the FEC. 

Members of the Faculty Ethics Committee

  • TBC

Statement regarding antiquities

  • In carrying out research on objects of antiquity, students and staff must take care to understand the provenance of items and avoid contributing to the presentation, publication, or valorization of unprovenanced material unless it can be demonstrated clearly that the artifact or specimen has been in an existing collection since before 1970 or was legally exported from its country of origin. This restriction is in line with UNESCO's Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export, and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970.
  • The United Kingdom's Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s Cultural Property Unit has adopted the 1970 threshold in its advice regarding due diligence in determining the provenance of antiquities (2005).
  • Students and staff must avoid undertaking scholarly work on objects where there is insufficient information to establish a licit provenance or where the material is known to be illicit. Before setting out to study material, or assist in the publication of research, students and staff must exercise due diligence in establishing that the material has not been illegally excavated, acquired, transferred, and/or exported from its country of origin since 1970. Members of the Faculty may be called upon to provide expert advice on antiquities, as part of a police or governmental body’s investigation into material and its provenance and should proceed with attention to the basic principles of this code: seeking to discourage illicit dealings in antiquities. Research into the illicit acquisition of antiquities itself may pose particular issues in regard to this code, and students and staff pursuing such research are advised to consult the Ethics Committee to clarify that their research is not supporting or engaging in illicitly acquired antiquities, but sets out to discourage the trade.
  • Professional bodies in the field also adhere to codes of conduct in this regard, such as:
    • International Council of Museums' Ethics Code which prevents museums and museum staff from acting 'in any way that could be regarded as benefiting such illicit trade, directly or indirectly, including in the identification of archaeological items and their presentation/display;
    • Article 1.6 of the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists’ Code of Conduct, which states that ‘A member shall know and comply with all laws applicable to his or her archaeological activities whether as employer or employee and where appropriate with national and international treaties, conventions and charters including annexes and schedules.

Guidance and training materials