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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

Please refer to the Data Protection pages for our policies and guidance, including information on GDPR 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 healthy place of work where staff and students are confident that their health, safety and welfare are 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. For research involving fieldwork a Fieldwork Risk Assessment Form must be completed.

Principles, guidance and forms

The University of Stirling is committed to ensuring that all research conducted under our auspices is in accordance with the appropriate ethical, legal and professional frameworks, obligations and standards. The University’s ethical review process exists to ensure that our research activities continue to fulfil high ethical standards as well as legal obligations and safety standards.

The University’s guidelines for research ethics committees draw on the requirements of a number of institutions including; the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Framework for Research Ethics, the provisions of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 (ASPA), the British Psychological Society, the UK Research Integrity Office (UKRIO) and other institutions to which the University is accountable. Due cognisance of both University and discipline-specific ethical standards and norms for practice-based research should be taken.

Please click on the following links to download the ethics guidance and forms you require:

Research Integrity Training Resources

To further the University’s culture of research integrity, training materials have been made available via Canvas. Within the materials there are six videos each accompanied by a booklet that provides the video transcript, extra resources and example case studies; each video is also accompanied by a quiz to reinforce understanding.

Topics include:

  • Introduction to Research Integrity and the responsible and ethical conduct of research
  • Ethical approval and practice
  • Plagiarism and recycling of text and research outputs
  • Authorship
  • Collaborative research and data management and integrity
  • Peer review and publication ethics

The training has been developed and made available across the sector, by the University of Dundee. Training materials are available to everyone from final year undergraduate dissertation students through to experienced research staff. The structure of the training is designed to allow you to dip in and out of the topics that are relevant to you and your current level of experience, rather than to be digested as a whole.

Link to training materials:

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