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Ethics & Research

The UK Network of Sex Work Projects (UKNSWP) and individual projects are often asked for assistance with research.

Before agreeing, several things need to be considered.For example, research proposals should adhere to ethical practice and should have Research Ethics Committee approval from the university in which the researcher is based. If your project is NHS-based, researchers will also need approval from the relevant NHS Ethics Committee(s)before commencing the research: it is the researcher’s responsibility to obtain this.

Before approaching any project, researchers should also be expected to providea clear outline of their research intentions, including:

  • the aims of the study,
  • the researcher’s theoretical position,
  • the proposed research design and methods,
  • the ethical considerations to be taken into account and how these will be adhered to, including informed consent and confidentiality, and how the welfare of participants will be assured during the research,
  • how users will be involved in the research, and
  • the use to which the research will be put, including how the findings from the research will be fed back to participants.

They should also provide a current CV, which includes examples of previous work they have undertaken.

If you are uncertain about any aspects of the research or wish for further information before considering whether to participate, do ask the researcher for as much information as you need to make an informed decision.

Below is a statement from the Department of Health on the key responsibilities for the researcher, their organisation and the organisation responsible for the subjects of the research.

The last section on the responsible care professional spells out the basics that UKNSWP members need to be aware of, including that they are responsible for ensuring that Research Ethics Committee approval has been obtained for all research.

The simple way of doing this is for project managers to ask for a copy of the Research Ethics Committee’s letter of approval. If this is not available we believe they should not grant access to their clients.

A small number of researchers may be independent or not based within a university. In this case, they will not be able to obtain approval from a university Research Ethics Committee (they will still need NHS Research Ethics Committee approval if your project is NHS-based). In these instances, if you feel you would like to pursue this further and the researcher is not known to you,it is important to ask for peer review of their research proposal – for example, from academic members of the UKNSWP.Before considering their request, we advise you toask them for references from other UKNSWP member projects they have worked with in the past, and/or UKNSWP academic members who know their work.

Research Governance: Summary of Key Responsibilities of People and Organisations Accountable for the Proper Conduct of a Study


Principal Investigator and other researchers

  • Developing proposals that are ethical and seeking research ethics committee approval
  • Conducting research to the agreed protocol and in accordance with legal requirements and guidance e.g. on consent
  • Ensuring participant welfare while in the study
  • Feeding back results of research to participants
  • Research Ethics Committee
  • Ensuring that the proposed research is ethical and respects the dignity, rights, safety and well-being of participants



  • Assuring the scientific quality of proposed research
  • Ensuring research ethics committee approval obtained
  • Ensuring arrangements in place for the management and monitoring of research


Employing organisation

  • Promoting a quality research culture
  • Ensuring researchers understand and discharge their responsibilities
  • Taking responsibility for ensuring the research is properly managed and monitored where agreed with sponsor


Care organisation / Responsible care professional

  • Ensuring that research using their patients, users, carers or staff meets the standard set out in the research governance framework (drawing on the work of the research ethics committee and sponsor)
  • Ensuring research ethics committee approval obtained for all research
  • Retaining responsibility for research participants’ care

A variety of other relevant documents can be downloaded from COREC (Central Office Research Ethics Committee)

Further articles and book chapterswhich discuss ethical research practice and research with sex workers can be found in the following:

  • Campbell, R and M O’Neill (ed) Sex work now. Cullompton: Willan Publishing.
  • Pitcher, J., Campbell, R., Hubbard, P., O’Neill, M., and Scoular, J., (2008) ‘Diverse community responses to controversial urban issues: the contribution of qualitative research to policy development’ in Maginn, PJ, Thompson, S and Tonts, M (ed) Qualitative Urban Analysis: an international perspective. Oxford: Elsevier.
  • Sanders, T (2006) ‘Sexing up the subject: methodological nuances in the female sex industry’. Sexualities, 9(4): 471-490.
  • Sanders, T, M O’Neill and J Pitcher (2009) Prostitution: sex work, policy and politics. London: Sage.
  • Shaver, F M (2005) ‘Sex work research: methodological and ethical challenges’. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 20 (3): 296-319.
  • Social Research Association ethical guidelines (