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MPhil in Health, Medicine and Society


Working with human participants

Students on the HMS course who are considering dissertation research involving human participants should be aware that there is a process to follow before research can proceed. Though this should not take long, you will need to start planning well in advance to ensure that approval is granted by the time you start collecting data. No research can be commenced until approval has been granted.

The University of Cambridge Research Integrity website provides ethics and integrity guidelines to support both staff and students (see especially the section on Research Integrity: Research Ethics). For those who are undertaking ethnographic research, please note that The Association of Social Anthropologists provides extensive ASA ethics guidelines. The British Sociological Association has similarly published guidelines for those working in Sociology.

If, after consultation with your supervisor, you are planning to work with human participants, you should consult the relevant guidelines carefully as early as possible. Please bear in mind that the published guidelines are not intended to provide ready-made answers or to absolve researchers from ethical responsibilities, but should be a starting point for a concrete reflection on the specific ethical issues which may have to be borne in mind in the case of your specific research.

Data Protection

Researchers should be aware of data protection issues that arise as a result of conducting research on or with human subjects. You should keep in mind that when using cloud-based storage, or programmes such as Evernote, that data will be crossing international borders even if your research does not. This means you should be aware of any issues raised concerning not only the security of your own research data, but also the legal issues surrounding data protection of all personal data. Further information on data protection can be found at the following places:

If, having read these guidelines, you have any questions or would like any advice relating to research ethics, please consult your supervisor in the first instance; if there is then any query still outstanding, your supervisor may also put you in touch with the relevant Department’s Research Ethics Officer and/or the Department’s Data Protection Officer.

Please note:

  • Work with human participants will usually be restricted to the dissertation due to the short time available.
  • Should you wish to study University-based activities, you should discuss this with your supervisor well in advance.
  • You should be aware that revising an approved dissertation topic may risk invalidating an approved ethics application.  If revisions are required please discuss these with your supervisor, subject manager and the HMS manager to establish how to proceed.
  • The time available for MPhil research projects is limited and when considering an application for ethical approval the committee will take into account whether the research plans can be achieved within the time available. This also means that projects that would require complex levels of ethical scrutiny are unlikely to be approved, because of the time and expertise required for these kinds of projects.
  • You should identify and address in your application for ethical approval any training needs required to conduct the research being proposed. Supervisors should be able to help identify these.

Procedural information

Prior to seeking ethical approval for a project involving human participants, you should consult with your supervisor to make sure that you are well-informed of, and will take measures to deal with, ethical issues implicated in your research.

The approval process will proceed as follows:

  1. Students submit a provisional dissertation topic in mid November. If you propose to work with data collected from human participants, you must indicate this on the provisional dissertation topic form and should consult with your supervisor (and any other parties as necessary).
  2. If ethical approval is required, submit an application to the relevant department (History and Philosophy of Science, Social Anthropology, or Sociology). The correct department will normally be the department in which your supervisor is based, but students and supervisors can consult subject managers for clarification. Further information about how to submit an ethics application to the relevant department is available in the following section
  3. If the application is submitted to Sociology or Social Anthropology, a copy of the application must be submitted to the Departmental Administrator in History and Philosophy of Science for the Degree Committee's records.

History and Philosophy of Science

Discuss your proposed topic with your supervisor and follow the instructions on the HPS Working with Human Participants pages.


Discuss your proposed topic with your supervisor and follow the instructions on the Sociology Risk Assessment and Research Ethics for Research pages.

Social Anthropology

Discuss your proposed topic with your supervisor and submit form MP13-A (Research Ethics) – available from the Social Anthropology department (


Fieldwork must also be planned well in advance in consultation with supervisors. Students should be aware that this is a 9 month degree and therefore opportunities for fieldwork are limited to relatively short periods. If fieldwork is to take place away from Cambridge, this must normally take place outside of the University term.

Please note – this is working guidance and is subject to regular updates.