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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. Similarly, for those working in Sociology, the British Sociological Association has recently published guidelines (https://www.britsoc.co.uk/media/24310/bsa_statement_of_ethical_practice.pdf)

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.

Researchers should also 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.
  • Students 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 the 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 the course managers are unlikely to approve projects that would require complex levels of ethical scrutiny because of the time and expertise required for these kinds of projects.
  • Students should identify and address in their 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. The HMS Managers will consider the dissertation topic form, which must indicate the intention to work with data collected from human participants and should be signed by the supervisor.
  2. If ethical approval is required the forms can be obtained from the link below and the paperwork should be submitted to the HPS Departmental Administrator  https://www.hps.cam.ac.uk/documents/admin/ethical-approval.doc
  3. The HMS Managers will be asked to provide initial scrutiny of any applications for ethical approval of a research project and may choose to conduct a Fieldwork Clearance Interview to help assess the viability of the project. They will aim to do this within a fortnight of receipt of the application.
  4. The HMS managers will provide feedback to the student and supervisor to guide their consideration of any revisions that are required to the research plan or ethics application. 
  5. Once the HMS Managers are happy to support an ethics application it will be forwarded to the relevant Ethics Committee for formal consideration and approval. The turnaround is usually quick for a fully supported application.

Note – this is working guidance and is subject to regular updates.