School of Divinity

Ethics in research

Ethical review and assessment, and consent and data protection.

*** Face-to-face research with human subjects is temporarily suspended because of the coronavirus (Covid-19). Projects involving human subjects must temporarily use virtual communication only (eg. videoconferencing, online questionnaires). For assistance with the ethical dimensions of amended research projects, students are encouraged to speak with their supervisors or the Convener of the Ethics in Research Committee, Dr Sarah Lane Ritchie (email For the latest University guidance on coronavirus please see ***


The School of Divinity regards as very important:

  • the ethical implications of research activities carried out by members of the School
  • consent by research participants
  • meeting the requirements of data protection legislation

Ethical review and accountability

The Ethics in Research Committee, which is responsible for the implementation and monitoring of ethical review, has developed a policy and procedures to ensure proper ethical review and accountability.

All research which involves human subjects carried out by members of the School, including undergraduate dissertation projects and the research of postgraduate students, will be subject to a suitable level of ethical review. Ethical review should be conducted from the earliest stage of research.

In line with the recommendations of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Science Ethics Working Party (September 2003), the School has adopted a three level approach, which is designed to be simple to use and to focus on cases requiring most detailed attention.

These ethical review procedures are to be undertaken in conjunction with such scrutiny as may be demanded by collaborating bodies (eg. NHS), professional bodies (eg. BSA), funders (eg. AHRC/ESRC) and other external bodies.

Three levels of ethical review

If your research is completely 'desk based' and does not involve participants you are not obliged to apply for ethical approval.

You may, however find it useful to use the Level One assessment form to consider issues of confidentiality and potential conflict of interests. You do not need to submit this informal assessment to the Ethics in Research Committee.

If your research involves living human subjects you are required to undertake at least a Level One Review.


Level One: Ethics (self) assessment

This applies to all research which involves human subjects but is unlikely to raise any problematic issues.

It is a useful checklist about such areas as consent, confidentiality, data protection and transparency of method etc.

If in completing this assessment issues emerge which may potentially be problematic or foreseeable risks are identified, a further review at Level Two or Three is indicated.

Level One Ethics (Self) assessment is normally carried out by the Principal Investigator or:

  • For Honours and taught Masters students this is done by the dissertation supervisor on behalf of the programme manager. Supervisors should undertake a Level One assessment with the student when the students dissertation proposal has been approved and before work commences.
  • For MTh/MSc by research and PhD students the assessment is carried out by the first supervisor. Supervisors should undertake a Level One assessment with the student when the students dissertation proposal has been approved and before work commences.
  • For Post-doctoral Fellows this is done in collaboration with the mentor who is responsible for confirming that it has been carried out. Mentors should undertake Level One assessment with the post Doc Fellow when the research proposal has been approved and before work commences.

This applies to all research which involves human subjects but is unlikely to raise any problematic issues.


Please note: if your research involves living human subjects, you will need their consent to participate and consent to collect their personal data. See Consent and data protection, below.


Level Two: Full ethical assessment 

Whether or not you need to do a Level Two assessment, depends on your answers in the Level One form above. 

Full ethics assessment at Level Two is always indicated when the research involves participants deemed vulnerable (young people, adults with mental impairment or those in circumstances which may impinge on their freedom to participate such as prison).

The form for Levels Two and Three is the same: it is a full ethics assessment. However, the processing of the applications differs. For Level Two the application is reviewed by a member of the Ethics in Research Committee and where necessary further information is sought from the applicant.

  • If no foreseeable potential risks are apparent, approval will be given.
  • If there are deemed to be problematic aspects to the research, it will be referred for Level Three processing.

Full ethics assessments at Levels Two and Three are completed by the same applicant as the original Level One assessment.

Level Three: Foreseeable potential risk

This applies to research requiring very careful scrutiny, given a potential for psychological or physical risk to participants or researchers.

The full ethics assessment produced by an applicant will be forwarded for discussion by the School Ethics in Research Committee. If necessary, it may be reported to the College Research Ethics Committee.

  • The process for securing Level Three ethics approval can be lengthy. It is important to identify potentially problematic aspects of research early and to apply for clearance in good time.
  • Work on a project which is deemed to require Level Three assessment may not begin until approval is given.

Consent and data protection

Consent for participation and personal data is required in most circumstances from participants. Records Management provides a very helpful summary of data protection guidance.

Individual or administrative consent?

For individuals who cannot give written consent, verbal consent should be recorded.

In some contexts of ethnographic research, individual written consent may not be obtainable or may not be meaningful. In some cases administrative consent may be deemed sufficient. For example:

  • for studies where the data collection involves aggregated (not individual) statistical information and where the collection of data presents no invasion of privacy and no potential social or emotional risks
  • for studies which focus on the development and evaluation of curriculum materials, resources, guidelines, test items, or programme evaluations rather than the study, observation, and evaluation of individuals.

If written consent will not be obtained a full ethics assessment may be indicated. Please consult the Ethics in Research Committee via the research administrator, Karen Duncan, in Divinity's Student Support office.

Even in cases where consent for participation is given administratively, researchers are still bound by the provisions of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in regard to holding personal data.

University guidance on GDPR

Participant Information Sheet

Here is an example participant information sheet that can be filled out and completed:


Karen Duncan, tel 0131 650 8905,