Related documents:

Research - The Ethical Implications - Sept 21

Research Requests - Sept 21

Our u3as and members might receive contacts from universities or companies who want people to take part in their research.

We advise all our members to take a 'safety first' approach. You can also:

What this covers

The purpose of this advice sheet is to provide every member and every U3A that is engaged in a formal way in research in its broadest sense with some ethical guidelines to support their involvement. Research projects vary greatly and might include members finding out more about the names on a local war memorial or a U3A entering into a partnership with a local university in which members help with research through active participation. It is concerned with how individuals are treated during the course of their involvement in projects, both U3A members and the wider public. For example, sometimes there needs to be a sensitivity to how existing family members might feel on being given details of their ancestors’ activities by an unknown person who has found new information. The suggested ethical guidelines are relevant to both Shared Learning Projects and academic research.

Why ethics?

None of us wishes to intentionally harm others with whom we are working. However, doing things ‘right’ ensures that we look after others and learn from their experiences. Consideration of ethical factors does not mean that there are necessarily rules to follow in any given situation. That is the role of the law. However, during our investigations, it is sometimes possible to harm others unintentionally. For example, a university might run focus groups bringing together people with, for example, a specific long-term illness. While that can create a self-supporting network of fellow sufferers, it can also, if not controlled properly, be a potentially painful experience for participants.

We are advised that where a U3A simply publicises a request for research subjects from, for example, a university, it is not liable for any harm done. However, if a U3A is involved in a university project which sets out to help its research participants learn from the process, the principle of liability could shift to the U3A. Certainly, where a U3A is on its own initiative researching an aspect of human behaviour and causing harm, it lays itself open to potential legal action.

However, if you can show that you have considered all aspects of the project you are involved in by checking it against ethical guidelines, then you have taken ‘due care’.

The role of ethics committees in NHS and universities

The NHS and all universities have their own ethics committees. Experience has shown, however, that some projects that could potentially harm participants have been passed as ethical by university ethics committees. It is therefore recommended that if you are considering becoming involved with a university or health project you should ask to see the application that was made to the relevant ethics committee as well as the authorisation given as a result.

Checklist for guidance


This is the overarching principle by which any research project should be judged – that it does no harm to the individuals or organisations contributing to it and involved with it.

Treat with respect

Every individual involved in the research project should be regarded with and treated with respect for their basic human rights.

Pass on research outcomes

Any project should have built into it a means of feeding its outcomes back to its participants, together with an opportunity for them to say what they gained from it. (U3A basic learning principle.)


Where at all possible, there should be an element of learning for participants in line with U3A’s principle of active learning, thereby gaining knowledge as well as contributing to the project’s outcomes. (U3A basic learning principle.)

Agree expectations/requirements

/informed consent

All participants need to be fully aware of what will be asked of them, the nature and length of any commitment to the project and the opportunity to give informed consent to their participation without pressure from any source.


Comply with privacy/confidentiality/ anonymity

Participants should be told how their privacy and anonymity will be preserved and how confidentiality will be ensured.

Ensure data management conforms with GDPR See:

Further support

This advice sheet has been written by the Ethics Working Party of the Third Age Trust’s National Research Sub-Committee. If any U3A member or U3A is unsure whether a particular research or shared learning project complies with the above guidelines, then they should in the first instance consult their local Research Ambassador or Shared Learning Project Coordinator who will get in touch with the Ethics Working Party if considered necessary.