Ethics levels

Overview of ethics levels as they apply to the Informatics ethics procedure.


Ethics applications submitted for review in the School of Informatics are assigned a level. The level depends on different aspects of the proposed research. The level system ensures that each application is appropriately reviewed, and (where relevant) that any necessary adjustments are made to the research plan before data collection begins.

Ethics applications at level 2 or above require review by more than one member of the Informatics Ethics committee, and will result in a longer turnaround time for approval. Where applications are deemed to be at level 3, they are reviewed by the full School Ethics committee at the monthly Ethics committee meeting. Applications at level 4 are escalated for review at College, and will result in a considerably longer turnaround time. 

Level 0

Does not normally require an ethics application (with exceptions outlined below)

Proposed research is  considered level 0 if it does not involve human participants or personal data, and does not involve any of the points outlined under level 2. The research should not raise any apparent ethics concerns. 

Applicants should err on the side of caution and submit an ethics application if they are unsure about whether there are potential ethical concerns. 

Funded research projects may be required to submit a level 0 application to meet funder requirements.

Level 1

Reviewed by one assigned member of the Informatics Ethics committee

Applications are considered at level 1 if the proposed research involves human participants or personal data but it  does not involve any of the points outlined under level 2.

Examples of level 1 projects

Level 1 example A: Research project studying a less common programming language to determine if it is suitable for developers to use in web application development. The research uses an online questionnaire to show participants code snippets and ask them to provide short answers.

[Redacted example PIS to follow]

Level 1 example B: [blurb to follow]

Level 2

Reviewed by two assigned members of the Informatics Ethics committee

Applications are considered at level 2 if the research involves any of the below:

  • Issues with regards to the safeguards quoted as good practice in the University’s Data Protection policy (including the minimization principle, anonymization of personal data, and secure storage of data. See the University's data protection policy and accompanying handbook for further information (sections 12 and 13 relevant for research and student projects respectively).

  • Issues with regards to data protection and consent, including but not limited to:
    • The use of services which are not UK GDPR compliant (e.g. DropBox) to store data that are sensitive and/or could be used to identify participants.
    • The collection of participant data without explicit participant consent (e.g. where participants cannot meaningfully provide consent [see also Vulnerable participants], or where administrative consent is sought in lieu of participant consent [e.g. for aggregated information on participants])
  • Significant potential for physical or psychological harm, discomfort or stress, including but not limited to:
    • Projects where the true purpose of the research is concealed from participants
    • Potential harm to the researcher(s)
  • Vulnerable participants, including but not limited to individuals who are:
    • under the age of 15
    • disabled
    • in any other dependent relationship with the researchers(s), e.g. student-teacher
    • known to have special education needs
    • physically or mentally ill, or with diminished cognitive capacity
    • in the care of a Local Authority
    • unlikely to share a language with the researcher(s)
    • members of a vulnerable or stigmatized minority
    • likely to have difficulty in reading and/or comprehending any printed material distributed as part of the study
  • Moral issues and researcher/institutional conflicts of interest, including but not limited to:
    • potential benefit to the researcher, or their friends or family, which might compromise the researcher’s objectivity or independence (reference the University's policy on conflict of interest, 6.2.
    • The need to keep the purposes of research concealed;
    • Use of participants who are unable to provide informed consent (e.g., children);
    • Situations where research findings could have negative consequences for participants.
  • Bringing the University into disrepute, including but not limited to:
    • Any aspect of the research, in your assessment, being considered controversial or prejudiced
  • The use of animals
  • Specifically targeting participants in developing countries
  • Dual use, including but not limited to:
    • Research which uses classified information, materials or techniques
    • Research which uses dangerous or restricted materials (e.g. explosives)
    • Research which has specific adversarial military applications
    • Projects where the specific results of the research could present a danger to participants, or to society as a whole, if they were improperly disseminated
  • Terrorist or extremist groups

Level 3

Reviewed by the full Informatics Ethics committee

Applications are considered at level 3 if the research involves any of points outlined under level 2 and there are a combination of factors which suggest the research is potentially high risk. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Research involving extremely vulnerable populations
  • Research conducted in war zones
  • Research with potentially serious implications for participant welfare

Level 4

Escalated for review at College

Applications are considered at level 4 if the proposed research meets the criteria for level 3, but where a decision on how to address relevant aspects of the project cannot be reached at the level of the Informatics Ethics committee. This may include, but is not limited to:

  • Research projects in which the researcher(s) intend to observe an illegal activity
  • Research which includes the use of materials which are the subject of legal action against the University