User Research Ethics for Undergraduate and Taught Masters Students in Computing

Please read through this document carefully. Once you'e read through it you'll need to complete the poposal form. You may also need to create an information sheet and consent form to pass to participants in your experimental work. The following links will take you to some form templates to use as examples.


Undertaking research in Computing often involves end users. This involvement may be in the form of

  • Questionnaires
  • Focus Groups
  • A/B Experimental Testing
  • Video and audio recording
  • Direct and Indirect Observations

and so forth. In carrying out such forms of research we need to ensure the safety and privacy of the participants.

The involvement of users in research leads to a series of ethical considerations. It is important that at the design and planning stage of project and courseworks you consider such things as personal safety, potential threats to the social and psychological well-being of research participants, and how you intend to deal with the Data Protection of sensitive and confidential information. In order to completely understand the need to gain informed consent, recognise the voluntary nature of research participation, and ensure the confidentiality of those who take part, visit:

The above link also provides guidance and templates on participant information sheets and consent forms. It provides guidance and templates to help you undertake research at Liverpool John Moores. The above guidance is intended for research that is to be published to a wider audience. For Undergraduate and Taught Masters students your work will be to a restricted audience. However, you still need to bear in mind ethical considerations

In conducting the research you are acting as a representative of the University, and how you behave can impact upon how others view the institution; you have a responsibility to those who take part in projects and coursework; and you have a responsibility to future students by ensuring your conduct is appropriate and considered. You should discuss any specific concerns or questions you have about conducting your research in an ethical fashion with your dissertation supervisor or module leader. It is worthwhile also visiting the Code of Conduct on professional behaviour available from the British Computer Society

If you are engaged in User Research, as part of a project or coursework, you will need to obtain ethical approval from the School Ethics Panel, before you can begin your user research. Please take time to read through and consider the guidelines below, as adhering to them is essential to the successful completion of your dissertation.

What follows is guidance for completing the ethical approval process. Electronic versions of the forms you are required to complete are available on Blackboard and should be typed.

You should complete as much as possible of the form before discussing it with your supervisor or module leader.

You need to start the ethical approval process as soon as you can. How much time you will need to do this depends on what, where and how you are approaching your work. Studies outside of the university will require permission and ethical approval from the organisation involved. This will require extra time which you must plan for. For example, it can sometimes take months to gain approval from an organisation or agency. Do not be put off by this, but do be prepared and planned.

All applications have to be reviewed by a panel, so specific deadlines have been set to allow sufficient time to circulate applications to panel members, so that they can read and assess them, and for the panel to meet and make decisions.

On the next page you will find a diagram outlining the ethical approval process with the key dates.

Ethical Approval Process for Assessment involving User Participation and Research

Week 1: Start

The Project Tutor and/or relevant module leaders will explain the ethical approval process. The ethical approval pro forma will be available for the students to complete for their ethical approval submission. You should prepare for this session with a working title for your dissertation or module based assessment, so that we can begin the process of allocating you to supervisor(s). The following timetable applies to the Project. Module leaders will provide a similar timetable for their own assessment.

Week 2: Proposal submission

The Project Tutor and module leaders will be available during their standard office hours to deal with any queries or issues the students might have before submitting their ethics form. [Tom to insert info about supervisor allocations]

Week 3: Deadline for first face-to-face meeting between students and supervisor

You should have met up with your supervisor by this point. If you have not done so, supervisors cannot guarantee availability for meetings with students before the deadline for submitting the ethical approval form.

Date X: Deadline for final proposal and ethical approval submission

Date X: Ethical approval panel meets

Students must not carry out any research involving users until after they have received approval to do so from this panel.

[Then standard schedule for Projects is followed]

Stages for Ethical Approval

There are two routes for the ethical approval to continue with your project or coursework, either

  1. Your work does not involve any contact or data collection from any users. You should complete the first part of the form, confirming that
  2. Your work does involve contact or data collection from users. You should complete the form as fully as you can.

Stage 1: Meeting with Supervisor

Following the above introductory sessions you should download and print the ethical approval form, from the appropriate module on Blackboard.

Once you have downloaded and printed the form, carefully consider each of the sections and provide as much information as you can. If you are unsure how to complete any of the sections please discuss with the module leader or your supervisor(s).

Stage 2: Completing the ethical approval form

You should use your first supervision session to discuss the ethical approval form and go through the information provided with your supervisor. This session needs to have taken place with your supervisor(s) by Date X after that date, supervisors cannot guarantee availability for meetings before the ethical approval form submission deadline. Your supervisor may recommend changes to the information you have provided and if so these should be done before submitting your final version. If you do not complete the form on time it will delay the point at which you can start user research, and this will undoubtedly be detrimental to you.

Remember the panel will only consider ethical approval forms, if they are countersigned by your supervisor.

Once you have completed the revised ethical approval form and had it countersigned by your supervisor(s) you should submit it electronically by Date X

Because applications have to be considered by a panel, sufficient time is needed to enable the forms to be processed in advance of the panel meeting. As such ethical approval applications cannot be considered after the submission date.

Stage 3: The Ethical Approval Panel

There are ethical approval panels scheduled for Date X. During the meeting your application will be considered by representatives from the programmes and decisions recorded by the programme administrator. Depending on the information provided the panel can decide to

  1. Approve your application (in which case you can start to plan and undertake your empirical research)
  2. Approve subject to minor changes (in which case you will not be required to resubmit an ethical approval application providing you adhere to the changes recommended by the panel, of which your supervisor will be notified and monitor).
  3. Refer to next Computing ethics panel in November (this could be because your application is rejected or major changes are needed to your submission. If your application is rejected you will need to submit another proposal as per stage 1 of this guidance. If major changes are required then you should amend your proposal as requested by the panel).
  4. Refer to the University ethics panel (this will be done when it is felt that there are serious ethical issues that require formal approval). This course of action should be done as a last resort as the panel only meets at certain points during the academic year).

You will be emailed the panel's decision as soon as possible after the panel meeting. Your supervisor(s) will be copied into the email so that they have a copy of the decision for their records.

Stage 4: Resubmissions

If you are required to resubmit your application for ethical approval then you must do so in line with the instructions you will have received after the first ethical panel. You should follow the same procedures outlined in stage 1 of this guide, and you need to fully discuss resubmission with your supervisor(s) and obtain their approval.

If your application is rejected at the resubmissions panels then you will not be allowed to undertake research that involves collecting data from participants.

What are the ethical issues involved in research?


Written consent is needed for all participants. If participants are under 16 years of age, consent must be sought from a parent or guardian. 
You must explain your project in straightforward language so anyone can understand the nature of your project before giving their consent. 
Below is an example of an example of a consent form. 

Data Protection

As a collector of data from Human subjects you are the Data Controllers of the information you handle. This is covered by the Data Protection Act 1998. The main principles of the Act are explained here

In general for your dissertation and coursework you should

  • Only use any data collected for the purposes of your assessed work
  • Hold any data collected securely
  • Not release the data to others apart from your supervisor and module leader
  • Not include any subjects' names in published reports


The most fundamental concern in research ethics is avoiding harm. Harm might arise through risky software or hardware that you develop. No one involved in your research, including you the researcher and your participants, should suffer any physical or psychological trauma.

Personal Safety

Don't provide your home address, phone numbers or personal email. If your research requires a return postal address, discuss with your supervisor to arrange the use of a LJMU postal address.

Your personal safety

Your personal safety is of paramount importance. Testing hardware or software in Public venues (e.g., a night club) can present various risks to your safety. Handing out questionnaires randomly to the public is discouraged so you need to find an appropriate venue.

As part of the ethical approval form you are therefore required to consider the risks involved in undertaking your research. This is to make you think about potential hazards, and how you might resolve them. It will also reassure the ethical panel, increasing the likelihood of approval. It is not always necessary to complete a risk assessment but one is compulsory if you working outside LJMU premises. For example, a risk assessment would be necessary if you are visiting schools to collect data but would not be required if you were asking students in a LJMU lecture hall to complete a survey about their music preferences.


Be aware of the sensitivity of your research. What you see as a really interesting software application might be interpreted as highly insensitive or intrusive. Areas where the sensitivity of your research could be an issue include the following examples (but this is by no means exhaustive)

  • Domestic violence
  • Crime victims
  • Abuse
  • Divorce
  • Illegal activity
  • Race and ethnicity
  • Disability
  • Illness
  • Sexuality and sexual health
  • Religion
  • Bereavement


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