Are you legal and ethical?

Preparation is key

Before an interview or project begins interviewers or project managers should prepare by taking a number of essential steps so that what is proposed is acceptable to all participants and will pass ethical scrutiny.

Before the interview or project begins

think things through

Be clear what you intend to do with the interview

At the outset the interviewer or project leader needs to consider the purpose of the interview and the possible range of future uses to which it might be put (for example research, educational use, as an archive, transcription, publication, broadcasting and internet use).

How will you store and preserve the interview?

Arrangements need to be made for the custody and preservation of the interview and accompanying material, both immediately and in the future. For example, archives which may be willing to accept the recordings should be contacted in advance to check what documentation is required and to ensure that any wording about conditions of access and reference to the archive is accurately presented to interviewees and project partners.

Prepare a project information sheet

The project’s objectives and intentions can best be expressed in a clear public statement or information sheet detailing the nature of the research or project, which can be widely shared and understood by interviewees, project partners and stakeholders, and potential users.

Example project information sheet

Do you have the necessary knowledge and skills?

As well as these steps, interviewers also need to carry out research about the topic to be covered by the interview, acquire sufficient technical knowledge and attend specialist training to conduct an interview of the best possible standard.

Organisations carrying out or sponsoring oral history work should select interviewers of sufficient competence, experience and skill, and if necessary provide sufficient guidance or training to ensure that recordings and documentation are carried out to the best possible standard. This is especially important where a project is engaging volunteers as they will need to be carefully skills-assessed so that training and support can be carefully tailored to each individual. The quality of a project’s output is determined by the commitment of staff and if they are volunteers, within the context of a properly-conceived volunteer programme.

Training courses

There is training available on all aspects of oral history projects.

Ethical considerations

your duty to participants

Interviewers working in a UK institution of higher or further education, or whose interviewees are either employees or currently patients of the National Health Service (NHS) will be required to submit their research proposal to an ethics committee. In higher education this will be the Research Ethics Committee within their institution.

Interviewers wishing to approach patients within the NHS may also need to apply for Health Research Authority (HRA) Ethics Review before their project can begin.  The first step is to check whether your project is considered to be research. This can be done by accessing the HRA website:  . If it is deemed to be research, whether or not your project then needs approval by a Research Ethics Committee can be answered by again accessing the HRA website and answering a quick survey to assess your proposal.  ( ).  If appropriate, applicants will subsequently need to apply for ethics approval which is fully explained in detail at:  and will involve completion of the Integrated Research Application System (IRAS) form.  Please note that this approval process may vary for devolved countries. 

Interviewers wishing to approach clinical or non-clinical staff only within the NHS may not require Health Research Authority (HRA) Ethics Review but may require HRA Approval. A brief outline of the project, including how NHS staff will be identified, should be sent to who will then determine whether an application is required.

All researchers wanting to conduct research with staff and/or offenders in prison establishments, the Probation Service or within Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Services (HMPPS) Headquarters are required to formally apply for research approval to the HMPPS National Research Committee (NRC). All applications must be made using the standardised HMPPS research application form and, if the project also requires approval from health and social care bodies, it will additionally involve completion of the IRAS form before the project can begin. 

The following principles or ‘duties’ have been identified by the UK Data Archive:

  • a duty of confidentiality (though not necessarily anonymity) towards informants and participants
  • a duty to protect participants from harm, by not disclosing sensitive information
  • a duty to treat participants as intelligent beings, able to make their own decisions on how the information they provide can be used, shared and made public (through informed consent)
  • a duty to inform participants how information and data obtained will be used, processed, shared, disposed of, prior to obtaining consent
  • a duty to wider society to make available resources produced by researchers with public funds (data sharing is required by some funders)

Interviewing children and vulnerable adults

be aware of your legal responsibility

Interviewing children and vulnerable adults requires awareness of legal responsibility as well as issues of power and ownership.

So far as children are concerned, based on health service clinical practice and drawing on legal rulings, young people over the age of sixteen can give their own consent to participate in an interview. The age of legal competence for the use of personal data is thirteen in the UK (or twelve in Scotland).

OHS advice is to seek parental or carer consent for interviewing children under the age of sixteen, in addition to the consent of the child where they are aged thirteen or over. In the event of any conflict, the consent (or withdrawal of consent) of the child will take precedence. Information about the research that can be presented verbally and visually should be given to the child or young person to help their understanding of what will happen, what their involvement will be and the expected outcomes of the research. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO, the regulatory body which oversees data protection and other issues in the UK) is publishing an ‘Age appropriate design: a code of practice for online services’ likely to be accessed by children (the code).

Vulnerable adults, for example people with learning difficulties or with some degree of cognitive impairment, may sometimes be encountered by means of a ‘gatekeeper’- a carer, relative or friend whose role in the interview process needs to be carefully defined. It is important to ensure that explanations and the presentation of the research are communicated in ways that are accessible without being patronising. In some instances it may be helpful for the adult concerned to have a friend or long term associate with them to help with interpretation and explanation of the interview process. All projects and organisations working with children and vulnerable adults should have a safeguarding policy in place, that is a policy to protect the health, well-being and human rights of individuals –especially younger and vulnerable people – to allow them to live free from abuse, harm and neglect.

This guidance includes examples of information and consent forms designed for children and for vulnerable adults. The OHS offers further detailed guidance on working in schools here.

A project which had to grapple with issues around consent and mental capacity was Mencap Cymru’s project Hidden Now Heard. Sound clips are available online. 

Interviewing within the family

be careful with family secrets

In a one-to-one interview, interviewees often reveal thoughts, memories and insights that they haven’t vocalised before. Whilst this is very useful for family history research, if the interviewer is a member of the same family as the interviewee this can also mean that information and family secrets might be disclosed that could potentially be distressing to the interviewer or other members of the family. This guidance recommends that, in line with all oral history interviewing, a number of preparatory steps are taken before recording oral history within the family. More detailed guidance and tips for family historians are here.

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