This page outlines the School’s Ethics approval process for research and student projects. Readers are advised to also consult the University Teaching and Research Ethics Committee (UTREC) web pages for further information.

Scope

What needs ethical approval? See the UTREC pages for the long answer. But the short answer is at the beginning of the remit: “UTREC is responsible for overseeing the University’s research activity involving humans, their data or samples”. Many Computer Science projects might involve humans, for instance:

  • network monitoring
  • user studies
  • questionnaires
  • the collection or use of sensitive (e.g. medical) data
  • working with children
  • social media studies

If you are in doubt as to whether your project involves human subjects and might require ethical approval, please ask. If you are working with animals, then there is a separate committee called AWERB (Animal Welfare and Ethics Review Body).

Note that “for students, if your dissertation or thesis fails to include evidence of ethical approval, then it could be failed.”

Approval Process

Ethics Committee Meetings

The School Ethics committee meets monthly on the Wednesday before the UTREC meeting. In order for your application to be reviewed at the monthly meeting it must be submitted the Monday ten days before the meeting. Failure to submit on time may result in your application being put back to the following month.

Cut-off date Meeting date
Monday, 28 September 2020 Wednesday, 7 October 2020
Monday, 26 October 2020 (deadline for MSci S1 projects) Wednesday, 4 November 2020
Monday, 23 November 2020 (deadline for SH projects) Wednesday, 2 December 2020
Monday, 4 January 2021 Wednesday, 13 January 2021
Monday, 8 February 2021 Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Monday, 8 March 2021 (deadline for MSci S2 and DEPEND projects) Wednesday, 17 March 2021
Monday, 5 April 2021 Wednesday, 14 April 2021
Monday, 3 May 2021 Wednesday, 12 May 2021
Monday, 31 May 2021 Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Undergraduate and Masters Students

Students complete one of four possible ethics forms for their projects. Which form is required is determined by following these instructions:

  1. Meet with your supervisor to discuss the potential ethical considerations of your project. It is crucial that your supervisor is engaged in the process, as they will have more knowledge than you of any considerations.

  2. Take a look at the preliminary self-assessment form. Follow the guidance on the form.
    If you answer ‘No’ to all the questions, print the form, tick the “There are NO ethical issues raised by this project” box on the front and sign it. Then discuss the project and form with your supervisor and ask them to sign it. You should then scan and upload the form to the Ethics column on MMS. The ethics process is now complete for your project. You should attach a copy of the front page of the pre-assessment form to your dissertation.

  3. If you have looked at the preliminary self-assessment form and answered No to all questions except the question on whether your research involves human subjects, then next look at the School software artifact ethical approval application. This has been designed to cover many common student projects that involve the creation of a software artifact and some limited testing (for summer projects affected by COVID-19, this testing can only use Qualtrics for questionnaires and Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business for video demonstrations — see the amendment in the second half of the approval application). Read the rationale and ethical considerations on this form and see if your project is covered by these. Please note that projects that involve a questionnaire that is not discussing a software artifact (e.g. questionnaires collecting personal data from people) are not covered. Next go through the ethical approval application and see if the answers to the questions in the approval application apply to your project. If so, then you should complete the artifact evaluation form, print and sign it, discuss it with your supervisor and ask them to sign it, and then upload it to the Ethics column on MMS. The ethics process is now complete for your project. You should attach a copy of the artifact evaluation form to your dissertation. NB: do not edit the ethical approval application form; only complete the artifact evaluation form.

  4. If neither of the above apply, then you must submit a full ethics form. This can be found on the UTREC website. There is no need to submit the pre-assessment form or the artifact evaluation form in this case. Complete the full ethics form with the help of your supervisor. Please go through our School checklist before submitting so that you don’t make any common mistakes, and you should also look at the relevant UTREC guidelines. Once the application is complete, sign it, have it signed by your supervisor, and upload this form and all supporting documents to the Full Ethics slot on MMS. You should hear back from the ethics committee after the respective meeting date (see timetable above). Approval may involve the ethics committee asking for rewrites but once approved you will receive an approval letter. You should then upload the approval letter to the Ethics column on MMS. The ethics process is now complete for your project. You should attach a copy of the approval letter to your dissertation.

  5. If your project already has ethics approval (e.g. you are working on part of an existing project), then your supervisor (or the Principal Investigator of the existing project) must file an ethical amendment form that adds you to the project. You should submit a copy of this form to MMS. You cannot start working with human subjects until the amendment has been approved. You should attach a copy of the approval letter to your dissertation.

This flowchart should help you decide which form you need to submit. Flowchart

Frequently asked questions:

  • “I’m too late to submit my application on MMS – MMS rejects my application – what do I do?” You cannot start your research until you obtain approval. It is therefore in your interest to submit your ethics form on time. Occasionally, it isn’t possible to do so. In this case you should discuss this with your supervisor, and inform the Project Co-ordinator for your module. If they agree to late submission, you should submit your form by mailing ethics-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk.

  • “My project has changed – what do I do now?” Start the whole procedure from the beginning. See the previous section for guidance on how to decide which of the forms you would need to complete. This should be submitted to ethics-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk if the MMS deadline has passed.
    If you have already submitted a full ethics application, and already obtained ethical approval through that process, you can ask for small changes to the application by submitting an ethical amendment form to ethics-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk.

  • “I am doing a joint project with another School. Do I need to submit one application or two?”
    Only one application is submitted. This should go to the lead School (typically the one for which the module code is assigned, e.g. a CS4796 student would submit to the CS Ethics Committee). But the situation may differ depending on the particular circumstances of the project. You are advised to first contact the Ethics Convener at ethics-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk.

  • “My project involves children. What should I do?”
    You should read the UTREC guidance on Research involving vulnerable groups (NB this is currently being rewritten) and then contact the UTREC child panel representative (Barbara Dritschel, bd9@st-andrews.ac.uk) for consultation and advice. Once this is done, the application can be submitted, including copies of any correspondence with the child panel representative, to the CS Ethics Committee for review. The application will then be forwarded to UTREC for final consideration and approval. Any projects involving children that have not been discussed with the child panel representative will be returned immediately.

  • “I would like to do an online survey. Is a survey considered anonymous and how should I obtain consent?”
    The University has a Qualtrics license which you should use for any online surveys. Such surveys are not considered anonymous and you can find more information on using Qualtrics and how to obtain consent in the UTREC guidelines. Note that during COVID-19, project students using the artefact evaluation approval must use Qualtrics instead of face-to-face evaluation for evaluating their software artefacts. The fact that such surveys are not anonymous has been balanced against the need to have some sort of evaluation while face-to-face interaction is not permitted.

  • “My supervisor says that they already have ethics approval for my project. Do I need to do anything?”
    If the project that you are working on already has ethics approval, you still need to be added to the project. Your supervisor should file an ethical amendment form by sending this to ethics-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk. If the purpose of the project has changed by your work, then you will need to file a full ethics form.

  • “I am only experimenting on myself or collecting personal data from myself. Do I need to do anything?”
    You still need to file a full ethics application, as there may be ethical considerations, for instance around the storage of data or what would happen if data were lost. You do not need to provide consent forms or information sheets if you are the only participant.

  • “I am using secondary data collected by someone else. Do I need approval?”
    If the data involve human subjects, then you still need to fill out an ethics application, as there may be ethical concerns such as data storage, risks from analysis, licensing issues, or whether you have permission to do the analysis that you propose on the data. Your application should include evidence, e.g. of appropriate licenses and permissions. You should also read the UTREC guidance on secondary data.

Frequently encountered problems:

These are some common reasons for rejecting an application. Please try not to make these mistakes as they will delay your approval and your project. If you go through the checklist before submitting then this will help you.

  • Not explaining the ethical considerations in the “ethical considerations” section. It is crucial that you clearly outline any ethical considerations in this section. Simply stating “there are no considerations” or “there are no ethical issues” is insufficient, as any project involving human subjects will have at the very least concerns about consent, secure storage and so forth. Please start this section with a description of these considerations, and then a brief description of how you mitigate them (more detail can be provided later).

  • Dates. We see various issues with the date fields in the form. It is free text, but please use an unambiguous format (e.g. ISO 8601 or writing out the date in words). We have seen some use of US dates which can be misinterpreted. Also the length of projects should not exceed the length of a module for student projects (e.g. don’t have two-year projects for an SH project).

  • Data. What kind of data are being collected for your project and how? Do the data contain anything identifiable or personal? Please be clear about what data are collected, how they are stored and where. If you are using secondary data, explain how you have permission to do so.

  • Consent. Please make sure that you use the correct consent form for your project. We see lots of applications saying that no identifiable data will be collected, but then using a consent form that discusses coded data (i.e., identifiable data).

  • Materials. If you are submitting a full ethics application, please make sure that you include all appropriate materials. This includes any questionnaires if you are using them. If you do not have your full questionnaire or interview questions ready then you should at least submit some sample questions so that the Ethics Committee can get a sense of what will be asked.

  • Explaining all of the answers in the form. Please read the entire form. In particular if you answer NO to questions 12-20 then please explain why. For instance justify any inducements, or explain why you have chosen not to debrief your participants. Your supervisor can help here.

  • Signing the form. Please make sure that you have discussed your application with your supervisor, and that both applicant and supervisor have signed the form. A signed and scanned copy is sufficient; you do not need to submit hard copy.

Staff and PhD Students

Complete the full ethics form, go through the checklist and then submit the form, along with any supporting documents, to: ethics-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk

If you are a PhD student, both you and your supervisor must sign the form. Your supervisor should be engaged with the process from the outset.

If you have already submitted a full ethics application, and already obtained ethical approval through that process, you can ask for small changes to the application by submitting an ethical amendment form.

If you have external funding for the research, you may also have to complete a “Funders Ethical Approval Form”. UTREC maintains an extensive list of all pre-approved funders on their website. This includes all the major research councils. If your funder is not listed then you must submit the funders ethical approval form to UTREC, but this can be done at the same time as the project ethical application form to save time.

COVID-19 updates

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant that changes have been required for ethics approval during the remainder of the 2019-20 academic year. You should look at the UTREC interim guidance pages for full details but some of the main changes are outlined here:

  • Any research involving travel or face-to-face interaction with participants must now stop. Researchers who wish to continue their research should change their methods and submit an amendment. The amendment form has been changed to include a table of differences which should make it easier to complete.
  • The project artifact evaluation umbrella approval has been changed, and any MSc project evaluation must use remote evaluation with participants, Qualtrics for asking questions, and Microsoft Teams or Skype for Business (using University credentials) for any video remote demonstrations. See the artifact evaluation approval. Any MSc projects that plan to use other tools or evaluation methods must submit a full ethics application.
  • Researchers submitting full ethics applications should determine whether their research is low-risk or high-risk using the risk filter form at the start of the ethics application form. A list of the risk criteria can be found on the UTREC website. Note that high-risk projects may take longer to review.
  • Since it may be difficult to obtain a supervisor’s signature, this is not needed at this time. But supervisors should note this that they have read the application and approve it in the supervisor’s comments section.

Further Reading

Committee Members

  • Convener: Juan Ye
  • Member: Lisa Dow
  • Member: Loraine Clarke
  • Member: Alexander Konovalov
  • Member: Alice Toniolo
  • Member: Alexander Voss
  • Secretary: Wendy Boyter
  • e-mail: ethics-cs@st-andrews.ac.uk

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Last Published: 25 Sep 2020.