Understanding Ethics

Definitions of Research and Ethics

Definition of research

Although there continues to be debate over what constitutes research, the University of Stirling applies the definition formulated for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) 2014. For the purposes of the REF, research is defined as ‘a process of investigation leading to new insights, effectively shared’.

More specifically, ‘it includes work of direct relevance to the needs of commerce, industry, and to the public and voluntary sectors; scholarship; the invention and generation of ideas, images, performances, artefacts including design, where these lead to new or substantially improved insights; and the use of existing knowledge in experimental development to produce new or substantially improved materials, devices, products and processes, including design and construction. It excludes routine testing and routine analysis of materials, components and processes such as for the maintenance of national standards, as distinct from the development of new analytical techniques. It also excludes the development of teaching materials that do not embody original research’. In addition ‘it includes research that is published, disseminated or made publicly available in the form of assessable research outputs, and confidential reports’.

‘Annex C: Definition of research and impact for the REF’, in Assessment Framework and Guidance on Submissions (July 2011, updated Jan. 2012)

Definition of ethics

Ethics are a personal code of conduct based on respect for one's self, others and surroundings and is governed by the principles or assumptions underpinning the way individuals or organisations ought to conduct themselves. Research ethics involves the application of fundamental ethical principles to research activities which include the design and implementation of research, respect towards society and others, the use of resources and research outputs, scientific misconduct and the regulation of research.

For more in-depth information, please refer to the Research Ethics: Definitions, Principles and Responsibilities.

Key Ethical Considerations

There are many ethical considerations when undertaking research. Key amongst these are the protection of human participants, welfare of animal subjects, handling of personal data and respect for intellectual property. Various codes of conduct and policies exist to guide ethical behaviour and researchers should refer to those most appropriate to their discipline or area of study – see useful links. Reference should also be made to the University’s guidance documents detailing Research Ethics: Definitions, Principles and Responsibilities and Definition of key terms.

Research involving human participants

With regard to research involving human participants, the University adheres to the six key principles outlined in the ESRC Framework for Research Ethics:

  • Research should aim to maximise benefit for individuals and society and minimise risk and harm
  • The rights and dignity of individuals and groups should be respected
  • Where ever possible, participation should be voluntary and appropriately informed
  • Research should be conducted with integrity and transparency
  • Lines of responsibility and accountability should be clearly defined
  • Independence of research should be maintained and where conflicts of interest cannot be avoided they should be made explicit.

Research involving animals

For research involving animals, the University adheres to the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA) and the principles of replacement, reduction and refinement:

  • The principle of replacement is the principle that, wherever possible, a scientifically satisfactory method or testing strategy not entailing the use of protected animals must be used instead of a regulated procedure.
  • The principle of reduction is the principle that whenever a programme of work involving the use of protected animals is carried out the number of protected animals used must be reduced to a minimum without compromising the objectives of the programme.
  • The principle of refinement is the principle that the breeding, accommodation and care of protected animals and the methods used in regulated procedures applied to such animals must be refined so as to eliminate or reduce to the minimum any possible pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm to those animals.

Data Protection

The Data Protection Act (1998) defines the University’s responsibilities concerning the collection, storage, use and transfer of information about living individuals. It also affords rights to individuals, including the right to see information held about them. Please refer to the Data Protection pages for policy and guidance, including an advisory note on Data Protection and Research.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property is the output of intellectual endeavour in literary, artistic, dramatic, industrial, scientific and engineering fields, which is generally capable of being identified and protected. The protection of IP is provided through certain legal rights many of which are established under legislation, common law and international treaties. For detailed guidance see the University’s Intellectual Property Policy.

Health and Safety

The University is committed to providing a safe and health place of work where staff and students are confident that their health, safety and welfare and considered to be of the utmost importance at all times. For detailed guidance see the University's Health and Safety Policies.

If your research activities involve carrying out fieldwork defined in the USHA and UCEA Guidance on Health and Safety in Fieldwork as:

"Any work carried out by staff or students for the purposes of teaching, research or other activities while representing the institution off-site. 
This definition will therefore include activities as diverse as attendance at conference and recruitment fairs, or undertaking social science interviews, as well as activities more traditionally associated with the term fieldwork such as survey/collection work carried out by geologists or biologists."

Please complete the Health and Safety processes established within your Faculty before commencing your fieldwork.

Useful Links

Data protection and copyright

British Psychological Society: Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research

Data Protection Act 1998

Freedom of Information (Scotland) Act 2002

University Of Stirling Freedom of Information Guidance

Intellectual Property Office: Copyright for researchers

University of Stirling Data Protection Policy and Guidance

Good Research Practice

Concordat to Support Research Integrity

European Charter for Researchers

European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (2011)

RCUK Policy and Guidelines on Governance of Good Research Conduct

Singapore Statement on Research Integrity (2010)

NHS research

Human Tissue Act 2004

Human Tissue Authority Codes of Practice

IRAS Guidance

NHS Health Research Authority

Public Patient Involvement (PPI) Guidance (INVOLVE)

Relevant material under the Human Tissue Act 2004

Publication Ethics

Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE)


Flesch Reading Ease Readability Formula

Gunning Fog Index

Research involving animals

Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA)

ASPA Guidelines

UoS Procedures Associated with Animal Experimentation Handbook

European Convention for the Protection of Animals during International Transport (Revised) (2006)

RCUK Guidance for funding applications involving animal research

Welfare of Animals (Transport) Order 1997

Research involving humans

Adults with Incapacity (Scotland) Act 2000

BERA Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research

British Psychological Society Ethics and Standards

ESRC Framework for Research Ethics

Mental Capacity Act 2005

SERA Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research

Social Research Association Ethical Guidelines

Society for Research in Child Development

Risk management

University Emergency Procedures

University Safety Policy and Procedures


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