A brief introduction to copyright, ethics and consent

Site: Postgraduate online research training
Course: Module 3: During the Research
Book: A brief introduction to copyright, ethics and consent
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Date: Saturday, 26 September 2020, 11:13 PM


A brief introduction to copyright, ethics and consent

1. What is copyright?

Copyright is a legal concept giving the creator of an original work the exclusive rights to it and to who may use it and for what purposes.  This is usually for a limited time only and ensures that the copyright holder is credited for his or her work.  

1.1 Copyright for individual researchers

In the case of individual researchers, data that has been created is their own (i.e. you own the copyright) but the facts that they are based upon are not and generally cannot be placed under copyright.  Most research outputs (including data organising files such as spreadsheets and databases as well as publications and reports) falls under copyright as literary works.  Thus you are again protected.  The creator of any data is automatically the first copyright holder unless a contract re-assigns this or has it transferred.   

In an academic context the employer (often the university) is, in theory, the owner of copyright for any work made during the employee’s employment.  However, many academic institutions re-assign the copyright of research materials, data and publications to the researchers themselves.  This is not always the case, however, and should be checked with your home institution.  

1.2 Copyright for Collaborative projects/derived data

When work is produced collaboratively or is derived from elsewhere then the copyright is usually held jointly by the various researchers or institutions.  On these occasions it is important to assign copyright correctly at the start of a project to avoid later complications.  

2. Ethics

Data collected during research can hold personal, sensitive or confidential information.  Often historians do not have to worry about this as many of the people and events they study occurred beyond anyone still living.  That is not always the case, however, especially with historians focused on the twentieth or twenty-first centuries.  Even when dealing with ages before this, some degree of thought might be necessary regarding ethics and consent.

The Managing and Sharing Data booklet from the UK Data Archive list as definitions the differences between personal data; confidential data; and sensitive personal data.  This is well worth reading and taking on-board as it will be useful to you whenever you come across information that may or may not fall under these categories.

From the Managing and Sharing Data booklet (p. 23)

2.1 Personal Data

Personal Data are data which relates to a living individual who can be identified from those data or from those data and other information which is in the possession of, or is likely to come into the possession of, the data controller and includes any expression of opinion about the individual and any indication of the intentions of the data controller.  This includes any other person in respect of the individual (Data Protection act 1998).

2.2 Confidential Data

Confidential data are data given in confidence or data agreed to be kept confidential, i.e. secret, between two parties, that are not in the public domain such as information on business, income, health, medical details, and political opinion.

2.3 Sensitive personal data

Sensitive personal data are defined in the Data Protection Act 1998 as data on a person’s race, ethnic origin, political opinion, religious or similar beliefs, trade union membership, physical or mental health or condition, sexual life, commission or alleged commission of an offence, proceedings for an offence (alleged to have been) committed, disposal of such proceedings or the sentence of any court in such proceedings.

For full information look at the legislation documents that may impact on the sharing of confidential data (this relates to the UK only).

3. Consent

Research data – even that which is sensitive or confidential – can be shared if researchers pay attention to ethics and legal requirements.  Often this is made much easier if the issue is considered right at the beginning.  Thus:

  • When gaining informed consent, include provision for data sharing
  • Make data anonymous (when needed)
  • Consider the possibility of restricting or controlling access to the data (if needed)

Remember to ensure that consent is informed it must be freely given with sufficient information provided on all aspects of participation and data use.  Thus always ensure that participants are informed how the research data will be stored, preserved and used in the short and long-term; how the confidentiality will be ensured (i.e. anonymising data).  Where possible always ensure that you have gained written consent for data sharing.  If using audio or video, verbal consent – recorded – is satisfactory. 

3.1 Anonymising Data

If you need to anonymise data be aware that it can often be a costly and time-consuming task.  Make sure you plan adequately at the beginning of the project.  The Managing and Sharing Data booklet explains that a person’s identity can be disclosed from:

“direct identifiers e.g. name, address, postcode information or telephone number.  Indirect identifiers that, when linked with other publically available information sources, could identify someone, e.g. information on workplace, occupation or exceptional values of characteristics like salary or age”

3.2 Access Control

Data centres and archives mean that the data under their care is not generally in the public domain.  Their use is restricted, usually to specific purposes and in many cases, requiring knowledge of the person wishing access to the data to be provided.  Users will, therefore, have signed up to an ‘end user licence’ in which they have agreed to conditions which might include – as an example - limitations on commercial use of the information.  

3.3 Open Access

New rules are ensuring that open access plays a much larger part in the production and process of academic work.  This is a constantly changing process at present but it is likely to have a wide-reaching effect on how you go about managing your data.  In essence data management is likely to become more important to your research than ever before.  As requirements and best practise for open access are currently in a state of flux we suggest that you look at the Open access: an information resource for historians in the UK – for the latest information and advice.

Also look at:

HEFCE - Open Access

Jisc - Open Access advice