Ethical issues and data protection

Find out about handling data from research projects involving people as subjects.

If your research project involves working with people as subjects, then you need to handle all associated data correctly.  Ethical guidelines issued by funders and the University cover how you can create and store data. In addition, laws such as the Data Protection Act 1998, govern the processing of personal data.

My research project involves human participants.  Is ethical approval needed?

  • View the University Research Ethics pages for information on the University’s policy and guidance on the ethical review of research projects involving human participants.
  • Personal data or sensitive data may not be suitable for sharing with other researchers, depending on whether informed consent has been obtained from participants. You may wish to consider anonymisation techniques or data aggregation for numeric data, editing of video or sound recordings, use of pseudonyms in qualitative data etc. The UK Data Archive has a comprehensive guide on consent, confidentiality and ethics.

What do I need to do to get ethical approval?

  • View the University Research Ethics pages for information on the University’s policy and guidance on the ethical review of research projects involving human participants.

What are my obligations under the Data protection Act?

  • The 1998 Data Protection Act affects the processing of personal or sensitive data and the circumstances under which you can share it with others.  If you have any doubt you should contact RIES in the first instance who can liaise with the University’s Data Controller (Paul Osbourne) and if necessary, seek legal advice.
  • The UK Data Archive provides a comprehensive set or resources for Legal requirements here, including the DBA and Freedom of Information
  • The University of Oxford’s Legal Services has produced this Briefing Note on Data Protection and Research which aims to introduce researchers to the provisions of the Data Protection Act and assist with their preparation for research projects.

What other practical considerations are there around personal and sensitive data?

  • Security:  have you considered appropriate security measures and implemented a policy for handling personal data?
  • Sharing: if the research team is intending to share access to personal data, then it is required by law to enter into a written agreement with those parties, setting out the conditions on which the data is made available.

This page gives links to research ethics guidance from professional associations, research councils and other organisations external to the University. As a minimum, researchers are advised to familiarise themselves with professional association guidance which is relevant to their field of research and use the principles as a guide for their own work. 

Professional associations

Below is a (non-exhaustive) list of such codes and guidelines.

Research specialism or methodology

Association and guidance document


Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth


British Society of Criminology: Code of Ethics for Researchers in the Field of Criminology


British Educational Research Association: Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research


Association of American Geographers Statement on Professional Ethics


Royal Geographical Society: Research Ethics and Code of Practice


Oral History Society of the UK Ethical Guidelines

Law (Socio-Legal)

Socio-Legal Studies Association: Statement of Principles of Ethical Research


Academy of Management's Professional Code of Ethics


Political Studies Association, Guidelines for Good Professional Conduct


British Psychological Society Code of Ethics and Conduct

British Psychological Society: Conducting Research on the Internet: (Guidelines for internet-mediated research)

Social Research

Social Research Association: Ethical Guidelines


The British Sociological Association: Statement of Ethical Practice

Visual Research

ESRC National Centre for Research Methods Review Paper : Visual Ethics: Ethical Issues in Visual Research (PDF)


Research Councils: research ethics guidance

Research Council


Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Framework for Research Ethics

Medical Research Council (MRC)

Research policy and ethics

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

Ethics Policy


Other external organisations: research ethics guidance


Title of Guidance

Association of Medical Research Charities

Good research practice

Department for Business , Innovation and Skills

Rigour and Respect – a universal ethical code for scientists

Department of Health

Research Governance Framework

Nuffield Council on Bioethics

Various publications on ethical issues in bioethics


Code of Practice for socio-economic research in Europe

Second world conference on Research Integrity

Singapore Statement on Research Integrity

Universities and Colleges Employer Association

Safety in Fieldwork, and Health and Safety Guidelines for Working Overseas



Creative Commons Graphic
Adapted from the University of Oxford under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported licence (CC BY 3.0).  Original content at: