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Laws Behind Psychological Research

Ethics have not always been prioritised in psychological research. As anyone who has taken a history of psychology course may know, many of the groundbreaking studies that took place as late as the mid-twentieth century would not pass a modern ethics review. Not until 1954 did the British Psychological Society first draft an ethical code, later appointing an Ethical Committee in 1958. Since then, there have been numerous additions and modifications to the Code as the BPS Committee has seen fit.

From project approval to publication, there are a range of legal policies that affect psychological research. Researchers must pass reviews and complete forms in order to transform their project ideas into tangible results, and the process has been polished over the turn of the century. Ethics have become ingrained in the core of psychological research, and the associated laws focus on the protection of participants.

Data Protection

Data protection has become a topic of interest and critique over the past several decades. Now more than ever, people are realising the need to protect their personal information from misuse and exploitation. The European Union General Data Protection Regulation came into effect in 2018 and replaced the Data Protection Act of 1998. That same year, the United Kingdom enacted its own legislation titled the Data Protection Act 2018 as a national representation of the GDPR.

The Data Protection Act 2018 applies to all organisations and businesses within the UK including private and university-affiliated research labs. As part of many psychological research projects, participants are asked to give personal information in order for researchers to better understand their participant pools. This data is protected by the DPA where the main “data protection principles” ensure that personal data usage is transparent in both its purpose and its destruction. The DPA outlines how to lawfully process personal data gathered from participants using consent forms and storage processes. Researchers are held to a list of standards that apply to different areas of research and types of data collection.

To begin with, researchers must have a legal basis for acquiring any personal data. The justification for psychological research is “substantial public interest”. Moreover, individual rights are at the center of data protection legislation and consent is, therefore, an integral concept. All data collection must be consented to by participants, often acquired through a pre-trial form. For psychological researchers working with children, it is necessary for the parental figure to consent on their behalf. Researchers also have the ability to anonymise data but participants must be informed about the storing and sharing of their personal data even if it is de-identified.

Some pre-trial questions ask for more sensitive information regarding a participant’s race, ethnicity, religious views, or political opinions. These are considered “special category” personal data and are subject to further safeguarding. Data regarding health information such as mental illnesses is another one of the DPA's special categories which often applies to psychological research.

For research purposes, some individual rights outlined in the GDPR may be waived per the DPA. These include the right to access and the right to restrict processing, among others. By invoking the listed individual rights, it is possible that participants may debilitate the research process and further hinder any findings. To that extent, researchers may be exempt from complying with certain listed individual rights in order to complete analysis.

Failure to comply with the updated data protection law may lead to sizable fines as well as the threat of suspension.

Ethical Approval

The overarching subject of data protection is ethicality, but the ethics of psychological research stretch beyond personal data collection. All research regarding humans and in some cases, animals, is subject to ethical approval. As a nationally recognised organisation in psychological research, the BPS publishes ethical codes that detail how researchers throughout the UK can achieve approval and remain lawful in their practices.

The governing bodies who oversee the ethicality of psychological research vary for each organisation. At the University of St Andrews, the University Teaching and Research Ethics Committee (UTREC) oversees all of the school ethics committees (SECs). Each school has its own group of trained members who review ethics applications throughout the year.

For the School of Psychology and Neuroscience, getting a proposal approved by the Ethics Committee is an integral part of the research process. It is a skill that undergraduate students typically learn as a part of their final-year project. Ethical approval must be granted before research may begin, so it is crucial that researchers follow all guidelines set by the appropriate governing bodies beforehand.

An ethical review application consists of several documents including the ethical review form, the participant information sheet, and the consent waiver as well as a copy of the participant debrief and any other adjacent materials. The 12-page UTREC ethical review form requires researchers to assess ethical risks and provide appropriate documentation to support their application. Participant information sheets and consent waivers ensure that participants will be made aware of their rights as listed in the DPA. Some applications may also include participant debriefs, advertisements, and "Protecting Vulnerable Groups" (PVG) documentation for further approval. However, not all research requires extra documentation so some applications will not require external permission or funder approval. After gaining approval from the SEC, researchers may begin their research. Should any aspect of the approved research change, an amendment to the review application must be submitted.

As the BPS and DPA (2018) have made clear, researchers are responsible for making sure that their research is lawful. While there are many aspects of these processes that are specific to psychological research, all academic areas are held to similar standards.


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