Ethics Review Board – Faculties of Science and Geosciences

Examples of ethical analysis

How to raise awareness amongst researchers and teachers regarding research ethics

With these exemplary illustrations of research ideas we invite you to consider the risks of misconduct. Below, we also provide a perspective that ERB shares with respect to these research projects.

Mary is exploring an innovative technology for teaching mathematics to 15-year-old children in collaboration with a university in the USA. She is planning a data collection on a school location during her internship.

At the school, she works as a teacher assistant; she is busy preparing lesson materials, helping some students with special needs, and checking tests. She plans to invite the students willing to explore new technology during the first session on trigonometry in a separate room and provide them an innovative online training after they sign consent forms. At this training, she will record their classroom work for further qualitative analysis: she just bought a nice tripod that allows her to fix her smartphone. She will also ask the students to fill in the questionnaires on their motivational profile, spatial abilities, attitude to science, general intelligence, and career plans after the lesson. At the end of the trigonometry topic, Mary will collect the scores of all students in the class and compare the groups who passed innovative training and traditional course.

Consider the situation from the following perspectives that touch on ethical matters:

  • Risk of violating privacy/personal data
  • Risk of misinforming participants and violating rights to withdraw from research
  • Risk of conflict of interest
  • Risk of potential harm and misinterpretation of the participants’ behaviour
  • Risk for privacy and safety in a digital world
  • Too large burden for participants

On which aspects can you judge the project positively or negatively?

On which aspects would you need extra information when judging the project? Which information is lacking?

Within each of the ethical aspects the following risks are plausible and need further assessments based on additional information from Mary about her research plan:

Risk of violating privacy/personal data:

  • Collecting video data on a smartphone might be risky unless it is protected by a password and the data is stored in an encrypted manner. Mary shall also take care of transferring data to more reliable storage on the first occasion.
  • Online learning materials might prompt students to leave personal identifiers, which can be accessed later by personnel unrelated to the research.
  • Collaboration with the USA might cause risks according to privacy law in case video data is shared without sufficiently informing participants about the plan of such sharing and possible risks.

Risk of misinforming participants and violating rights to withdraw from a research

  • It seems Mary gives the participants very little opportunity to withdraw from the study: they are informed about the details of the study only after they need to decide if they are willing to leave the main classroom.
  • Participants also have very little time to re-consider their participation: by the moment students leave their main classroom, there is hardly ever a way back because they are at risk of missing the obligatory school topic.
  • We cannot judge if Mary informed her participants well without access to information and consent forms.

Risk of conflict of interest

  • There might be conflicting interests in case Mary assesses students’ work both as a teacher and as a researcher.
  • Another possible source of conflict is relations with particular students, in case Mary acts as a tutor for them.
  • The platform that provides access to online materials also need careful attention. There might be a conflict of interest with a private company that may wish to benefit from positively assessing its learning materials.

Risk of potential harm and misinterpretation

  • The students who will participate in the innovative training are missing the normal lesson on trigonometry. In case innovative training do not cover the same material with sufficient quality, the students are at risk of failing in the future exams.

Risk for privacy and safety in a digital world

  • [see above on privacy] Online learning materials might prompt students to leave personal identifiers, which can be accessed later by personnel unrelated to the research.
  • The use of a smart phone might lead to automatic upload of sensitive personal data to a cloud storage, which might be not sufficiently protected.

Too large burden for participants

  • The questionnaires that Mary provides at the end of the study will take participants an essential amount of extra time. Yet, they seem to be distant from Mary’s focus of interest. So, additional clarifications are needed to conduct the assessment.
  • The quantitative comparison that May plans to conduct seems to be severely underpowered. In this case, the outcome of the research might outweigh the burden that participants undergo.
In 2018 an USO funded project was started in the Department of Human Geography and Spatial Planning to map how teachers and staff thought about research ethics and integrity in the field of human geography and what their ideas are on how this should be implemented in our teaching. Interviews and focus group conversations were organized with teachers to discuss the curriculum as a whole but also to share practices and experiences of ethical dilemmas.

Example of one dilemma that was discussed during the focus groups:

To familiarize students with doing research in the field, teachers of a first year course in human geography have designed a fieldwork exercise where students are asked to invent proxies that can predict certain geographic concepts. A cluster of old bikes in front of a building can for example indicate studentification (increasing occupation by students). To assess age differences in a neighborhood, a group of students comes up  with the proxy ‘type of curtains’: embroidered curtains would indicate the presence of older people. Students decide to take photos of curtains that they can include in their research report. When one of the residents sees students taking pictures of homes, he calls the police. Amongst teachers a discussion starts around taking pictures in public space during field research and about responsibility.

  1. What has happened here?
  2. What type of ethical issues arise?
  3. What can you do as a curriculum developer?
  4. Who is responsible when things go wrong during fieldwork?
  5. What would you have done if you were the teacher?
  6. Are you familiar with similar situations?
  • Dilemma Game

This game provides a set of dilemmas on various aspects within research practice. Link to the Dilemma Game:

Read more on the Dilemma Game here:

  • Escape Room

In 2020 an USO funded Escape Room was introduced at Utrecht University for Research Master students as a way to learn more about and become aware of ethics and integrity in research: Teaching and Learning Collection | Escape Room Responsible Conduct of Research ( You can register for participating in a game here:

The project aims to make the escape room available to large groups of students simultaneously, to make it publicly available, and to approach the issue from an interdisciplinary perspective.



More examples are to follow.