Skip to main content

Research ethics

All research that is carried out by Birkbeck staff and students that involves intervention or interaction with human participants, or the collection and/or study of data derived from living human participants, requires ethical approval. 

Members of the School of Social Sciences, History and Philosophy are strongly advised to familiarise themselves with and observe the code of conduct and ethical principles laid down by their relevant professional body, e.g. British Sociological AssociationSocial Research Association, and British Psychological Society.

Proposal procedure

  • Complete a proposal form and attach any relevant documentation, including completed information sheets, consent forms, and interview schedules or questionnaires for participant research. Students should consult their supervisor before completing the form. The procedure for approval is outlined below. After the proposal has been approved, the information must be submitted on this online form as it has to be recorded for audit and compliance. After submitting the form online, please download it as a PDF and email a copy to your departmental Research Ethics Officer.
  • If the proposal has been assessed as routine by the supervisor, it should be sent by the supervisor to the Departmental Research Ethics Officer (DREO) to confirm approval. Once approval is confirmed and the information uploaded to the online form with a PDF copy sent to the DREO, the research can commence.
  • If the proposal has been assessed as non-routine by the supervisor, the form should be sent to the DREO for further consideration. The DREO should determine whether s/he considers the proposal as routine or non-routine. If the officer 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 submitted the data on the online form and sent a copy as proof to the DREO. All proposals stored in departmental repositories may be audited by the School Ethics Committee.
  • If the officer considers the proposal as non-routine it must be referred to the . In most cases, applicants will receive a response within four weeks of submission.
  • Students in the Department of Psychosocial Studies and Geography should submit forms for routine and non-routine projects that have received approval by their supervisors via Moodle - see your programme handbook or contact your department administrator for details.
  • Staff proposals for ethics review should be considered by the DREO. If the DREO considers the proposal to be routine then they can sign the form to indicate this and the research can begin once the data has been uploaded to the online form and a copy of the PDF downloaded and sent to the DREO. The exception is ESRC funded research which must be reviewed by the College Ethics Committee and cannot be signed off by the DREO. All non-routine proposals must be referred to SSHP Ethics Committee by the DREO.

Possible outcomes of a proposal

  • 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 ethical concerns. It is the responsibility of the applicant to make any recommended changes and re-submit the proposal form together with supporting documentation.
  • Acceptance of a proposal without referral to the School Ethics Committee. This will occur when the supervisor classifies the proposal as routine (subject to approval by the Departmental Ethics Officer).
  • Acceptance of a proposal following the School Ethics Committee Review.

Role of the SSHP Ethics Committee

  • All research and all teaching exercises involving human participants must have received ethical approval at the appropriate level – within the Department hosting the programme or by the School Ethics Committee. This is so, no matter where the investigations are carried out or if ethical approval has been given by some other institution. 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 participants and researchers, and 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 Research Ethics Committee.
  • The Committee has the power to scrutinize all research involving human participants. 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 School Ethics Committee they can ask that the proposal be referred to the College Research Ethics Committee.

Membership of the SSHP Ethics Committee

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 School 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