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Teaching research ethics at postgraduate taught level

Jo Rose, Associate Professor at University of Bristol Anne-Laure Donskoy, PhD student at University of Bristol

All research in all disciplines requires researchers to carefully consider ethical implications of their work, whether or not governance sign-off is required. This raises an interesting challenge for postgraduate taught (PGT) students: some have little prior experience of research ethics principles or of conducting research; some are studying an unfamiliar discipline; and some completed their undergraduate education in countries with different ethical standards and expectations. Additionally, many study a full curriculum in a compressed timeline of around 12 months, starting a research dissertation around halfway through their studies. This leaves little time to understand and implement their learning of research ethics.

Every year, universities encounter a small number of ethical breaches by PGT students during their dissertation work, highlighting that not everyone understands the importance of ethical good practice in research. This emphasises the need for thorough and considered approaches to teaching research ethics at PGT.

‘Every year, universities encounter a small number of ethical breaches by PGT students during their dissertation work, highlighting that not everyone understands the importance of ethical good practice in research.’

In response to this issue, in 2022/23 we conducted an initial scoping workshop followed by a Research England Enhancing Research Culture funded project. The project comprised a literature review, five focus groups with academics at the University of Bristol, and seven interviews with colleagues from other higher education institutions. We aimed to understand how colleagues from different disciplines support PGT students to conduct ethically sound dissertations. We used our findings to develop guidance on teaching research ethics at PGT level across all disciplines, to prompt reflection on teaching practice and inspire colleagues to consider the place of ethics in PGT curricula. Main themes from the guidance are highlighted below.

All disciplines should engage in consideration of ethical issues in research even where research does not require formal governance sign-off: reflexivity is the fundamental principle underpinning ethics (Bazin & Goiseau, 2023). This encompasses awareness of personal ethics, purposes of research, considering potential ramifications of the research, and open research practices – going beyond the compliance discourse which often dominates curricula.

We recommend that colleagues consider why students need to engage with research ethics. We found Barnett’s (2009) conceptualisation of learning in higher education as a journey through ‘knowing’ and ‘doing’ to ‘becoming’ helpful. Considering ‘knowing’, all PGT students should be able to critically appraise their motivation for exploring a specific topic of research and research questions. Regarding ‘doing’, most PGT students will complete a dissertation, demonstrating competence in the conduct of research including the application of ethical principles in research practice and, where relevant, navigating approval processes. Considering ‘becoming’, some students – especially those who intend to pursue a career that involves research – will develop a sophisticated engagement with ethical principles and their application, and reflexive ethical practice throughout the whole research process will become an inherent part of their thinking.

Encouraging students to see ethics as integral to the research process, rather than a one-off event of approval, supports a more engaged research planning and can help research run more smoothly. Teaching research ethics involves much more than compliance with formal governance requirements (Smith, 2016), but the need to meet these requirements and the pressures of the curriculum can limit how it is taught and understood (Davis et al., 2022). Concerns about risk can constrain the nature of research (Stevenson et al., 2022) – and impacts on teaching of ethics. Thinking critically and ethically about the world around us is a core competency for researchers – one that develops over time as we face new ethical complexities which may not have fixed answers. Presenting awareness of ethics as part of academics’ ongoing lifelong development highlights the fundamental role it plays in research.

Given that ethical consideration is part of the critical appraisal of research, learning about ethics can and should be embedded throughout the curriculum. Making consideration of ethics visible and routine when discussing any research (not just when talking about research methods or the research process) can help develop students’ reflexivity generally and around ethical research. Teaching that focuses explicitly on ethical thinking and practices is of course helpful: it can complement embedded teaching on ethics and help provide space for developing reflexivity. Using this as the only approach, however, risks students seeing ethics as a separate, stand-alone compliance issue, rather than integrated as part of our critical reflection on the whole research journey.

The summary guidance is available here. For the full guidance, project context and literature review please contact Jo Rose at


Barnett, R. (2009). Knowing and becoming in the higher education curriculum. Studies in Higher Education, 34(4), 429–440. 

Bazin, Y., & Goiseau, É. (2023, July 18). What if ethics regulation actually fostered ethics? Times Higher Education.

Davis, K., Tan, L., Miller, J., & Israel, M. (2022). Seeking approval: International higher education students’ experiences of applying for human research ethics clearance in Australia. Journal of Academic Ethics, 20, 421–436.  

Smith, J. (2016). Reflections on teaching research ethics in education for international postgraduate students in the UK. Teaching in Higher Education, 21(1), 94–105.

Stevenson, J., Power, T., & Fox, A. (2022, December 12). Research ethics committees should rethink risk. Society for Research in Higher Education News Blog.