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Research ethics and integrity

Researcher vulnerability

Explore our guidance on considering your physical and psychological vulnerabilities as a researcher.

Researcher vulnerability is an often-overlooked issue, with the focus historically falling on research participant vulnerability, but it shouldn't be considered any less important.

This guidance aims to assist researchers in considering their own physical and psychological vulnerabilities and design out unnecessary risks. It is acknowledged that this isn't always feasible and therefore not all negative impact can be avoided, when endeavouring to produce impactful research. It is also recognised that not all risks should be viewed as hazards or threats, as some can have positive outcomes and provide beneficial opportunities. This is not a list of instructions advising researchers what they can and cannot do, the intention is to encourage reflection.

The University encourages research that seeks to explore and address inequalities and injustices and find solutions to the pressing issues facing health and social care. Inevitably research in these areas and beyond could have an unavoidable impact on the researcher but the University aims to provide support when these challenges occur.

Jump to a section of the page to explore this guidance:

Designing 'out'

From the moment you commence your research ethics application (if not before), you should be assessing the risk to yourself and where possible, removing it. Always question your chosen method or methods and consider if there are safer alternatives to gather your data.

The examples below are simplistic and don’t account for the type of research you as the researcher may want to gather but they do illustrate a thought process that each researcher should consider when evaluating their chosen research method, alongside their own personal safety.

Focus group interview:

  1. Is the interview unstructured?
  2. If yes, consider whether the interview is structured, or semi-structured.
  3. If no, consider whether the number of participants in the group can be limited.


  1. Is the observation off-site (not at York St John)?
  2. If yes, consider whether the observation can be brought on-site.
  3. If no: Is the sample random?
  4. If yes, consider an alternative of stratified sampling.

Consider why you are doing the research. You may have to ask yourself some hard questions (see Common signs of vicarious trauma section). For example, if someone with anxiety is researching job prospects for those with the condition, how would the findings, if negative, impact on them?

Asking yourself these questions at the start of the process and returning to reflect on them throughout your research should be an integral part of the process. The outcome of the research may not be as expected but by putting strategies in place and knowing how to access support it could help you to avoid, or protect yourself against a potential mental health impact.

It is acknowledged that it may not be possible to design out the risks, but it is good practice to demonstrate that you have identified the risks and considered possible mitigations.

The 3-step process is as follows:

  1. Identify potential risks
  2. Design them out or mitigate them
  3. Continually reflect throughout your research.

Risk identification

Hazard identification involves not just spotting hazards and noting them but also considering how they may cause you harm. Assessing the risk is just one stage of the process. By carrying out a risk assessment this enables you to plan and prepare for worst case scenarios should they arise, it may also be an insurance cover requirement in some cases. Risk assessment guidance and risk assessment forms, including the safeguarding process and IHASCO safeguarding children course, are available on the staff intranet Risk Assessment page.

Explore the dropdown below for examples of different types of risks.

Environmental hazards:

  • Air and water pollution
  • Chemical exposures
  • Extreme weather

Equipment hazards:

  • Contact, entrapment, impact
  • Slips, trips, and falls
  • Chemicals
  • Compressed gases
  • Electrical equipment
  • Lasers
  • Mechanical hazards
  • Noise
  • Pressurised equipment
  • Radiation
  • Sharps
  • Thermal
  • Vibration

Location hazards:

  • Areas where flammable liquids, gases or vapours or combustible dusts exist in sufficient quantities to produce an explosion or fire
  • Unsafe structures
  • Areas with high crime rates

Participant hazards:

  • Legal
  • Loss of confidentiality
  • Physical and psychological

Abuse and bullying:

  • Emotional
  • Exclusion
  • Physical
  • Verbal
  • Non-verbal

Emotionally demanding:

  • Feelings of burnout
  • Depression
  • Disengagement


  • Tension or worries caused by difficult situations


  • An expression of intention to harm through damage or injury

Vicarious trauma:

  • Witnessing fear, pain and terror that others have experienced that in turn has a significant negative impact on the researcher's health and wellbeing

Economic hazards:

  • Recessions
  • Inflation
  • Exchange rate fluctuations
  • Political instability
  • Trade disputes
  • Regulatory changes

Legal hazards:

  • Research that could result in researchers committing an offence, for example disclosure of criminal activities

Location hazards:

  • Areas where cultural or political views may differ from your own, or that of your home country


  • Damage to public perception of University or the researchers' reputation

Safeguarding risks:

  • Risk to researcher of being in a compromising situation, in which there might be accusations of inappropriate conduct

Security related hazards

  • Potential misuses and ulterior motives of your collaborators

Preventative measures

As noted earlier in this guide, preventative measures can include designing out the risks. However, where this is isn't possible, it is good practice to consider how you can protect yourself from harm. This does not though have to be done in isolation and researchers are encouraged to liaise with colleagues and utilise support provided by the University.

The University's Lone Working Code of Practice (staff intranet link) summarises potential risks which could also apply when you are gathering data for your research. Practical suggestions have been added, that could help you improve your safety.

When looking at the risk involved in Lone Working with the intention of creating a risk assessment, a good way to approach this is using the People, Environment and Tasks (PET) analysis. The PET analysis assists in identifying the 3 primary elements that contribute to personal safety and health and safety risks to lone workers.

Use the dropdown to explore the elements of the PET analysis.

Who: Is there anything about either the people that the lone workers are coming into contact with or the lone workers themselves that might increase the risks to their safety?

Are they:

  • Total strangers/members of the public?
  • Using words, tone or body language that indicates potential aggression?
  • People with a history of violence, aggression or criminal activity?
  • People with drug, alcohol or mental health problems?
  • Likely to welcome the presence of staff?
  • On their own or in larger groups?

Where: Is there anything about the environment that might increase the risks to safety?

Are they working:

  • In a busy area where there is open access to the public?
  • In a confined space?
  • Working at height?
  • In a rural or isolated area?
  • In an area not very well lit?
  • Going into someone else's home or territory?
  • Working out on the street among members of the public?
  • Travelling by public transport, their own car, or on foot?
  • In an environment where alcohol is being drunk?
  • Are they able to communicate with colleagues, or call for back up if threatened?

When: Is the time relevant to what control measures are available?

Are they working:

  • During office hours when there are many people around?
  • Late at night or early in the morning when they are more isolated?
  • During the hours of darkness which may alter both their perception and ability to respond to difficult situations?
  • How often do they keep in contact with colleagues?

What: What is it about the activity being carried out that might create risks for the lone worker?

Are they:

  • Dealing with cash?
  • Using machinery or tools?
  • Using height accessible equipment?
  • In a security role or enforcing a rule?
  • Assessing for or denying a service?
  • Discussing sensitive issues/delivering bad news?
  • Carrying valuables, equipment or medical supplies?

Key points

  • If you have a finish time, get someone to call at that time, even to get a chance to confirm all is good.
  • Never allow someone to seat themselves between you and your exit.
  • Never get complacent about anyone.
  • Reveal nothing of your personal life no matter how sure you are (private phone, Facebook, WhatsApp), stay professional and hand out only official means of communication (York St John email address).
  • Debrief. It is really important, especially if there has been an outburst/incident.

Vicarious trauma

Research could also have a psychological effect, potentially depleting a researcher's wellbeing due to the mental, emotional or physical demands. It's important to recognise that this may not happen instantly but could build over time resulting in increased anxiety, low self-esteem, feeling withdrawn or distracted and lacking in energy.

It is also important for the researcher to recognise signs of vicarious trauma in anyone who engages empathetically with survivors of traumatic experiences. The British Medical Association provides guidance on the common signs of vicarious trauma and strategies for reducing the risk.

Use the dropdown to explore signs and strategies.

If you are currently, or have recently been, working with survivors of traumatic incidents or torture, please be aware of the following signs:

  • Experiencing lingering feelings of anger, rage and sadness about participant's victimisation
  • Becoming overly involved emotionally with the participant
  • Experiencing bystander guilt, shame, feelings of self-doubt
  • Being preoccupied with thoughts of participants outside of the work situation
  • Over identification with the participant (having horror and rescue fantasies)
  • Loss of hope, pessimism, cynicism
  • Distancing, numbing, detachment, cutting participants off, staying busy
  • Avoiding listening to participants' stories of traumatic experiences
  • Difficulty in maintaining professional boundaries with the participant, such as overextending self (trying to do more than is in the role to help the participant)
  • Increase your self-observation
  • Recognise and chart your signs of stress, vicarious trauma and burnout
  • Don't take on responsibility for your participants' wellbeing, but supply them with tools to look after themselves
  • Take regular breaks and take time off when you need to
  • Seek social support from colleagues, friends or family members
  • Use a buddy system
  • Use peer support and opportunities to debrief

It is though recognised that when confronted with inequalities and trauma, in any situation, it is sometimes inevitable that it will have an impact that cannot be mitigated or avoided. This impact may not become evident during the research but could be triggered post research project completion.


When working with research participants it is important to establish clear boundaries not only to protect the research participants but also to protect yourself as the researcher. Understanding your own social positionality, possible biases, power relations and how to build a rapport without becoming too involved, is an essential preventative safety measure.

Qualitative researchers are expected to engage in reflexivity, whereby they consider the impact of their own social locations and biases on the research process. Part of this practice involves the consideration of boundaries between the researcher and the participant, including the extent to which the researcher may be considered an insider or an outsider with respect to the area of study.
Kalyani Thurairajah

When engaging with research participants the following is recommended:

  • Acknowledge that you are not in the position to resolve your research participants' personal issues, but that you can signpost support
  • Be aware of your own feelings and body language
  • Be mindful of self-disclosure
  • Consider the potential negative influence of your own reactions, for example, physical touch
  • Clearly identify your positionality in respect to the project you are undertaking
  • Keep track of time; where appropriate be explicit on the time you have for each participant and ensure all parties are aware of this from the start
  • Utilise participant consent and information forms. These help manage expectations and are part of your protection against potential false accusation

Establishing and re-enforcing boundaries is an important tool for ensuring the researcher's physical and psychological safety but also aids their ethical and legal protection should issues arise. Visit our Research security page for more information.

Dealing with disclosure and safeguarding

When dealing with disclosure, use the following steps:

  • Listen to what's been said
  • Let them know they've done the right thing by telling you
  • Explain what you'll do next
  • Write down what you've been told (use their words)
  • Speak to the University Secretary and Registrar as soon as possible
  • Record your actions. If possible, please use the appropriate form (for staff, use the Recording A Concern Or Disclosure form (intranet link))

It is not the responsibility of staff to investigate, make judgements or provide a response to safeguarding matters. They simply have to follow the reporting procedure if they have concerns.

Further information on safeguarding can be found on our Safeguarding page. Additional information on abuse is available to staff on the Safeguarding intranet section.

Did you know: safeguarding trumps data protection. You do not need consent to share information about a safeguarding matter. But if you are able to, tell individuals what you'll do next and get consent.

If the immediate safety of a person is at risk, contact emergency services and inform the University Secretary. Use the dropdown below to find emergency and non-emergency contacts.

If a person is in immediate danger or at risk of harm to themselves or others, first call emergency services at 999. You should then contact security. You should inform the University Safeguarding Officer as soon as possible.


If it's not an emergency, contact the University Safeguarding Officer, Kathryn Kendon, on 01904 876 027 or email

In their absence, contact Victoria Hamilton, Deputy Safeguarding Officer, via Microsoft Teams Chat or email

Online safety

Maintaining a secure online environment benefits both researchers and the academic community. Stay informed, follow best practices, and prioritise safety in your digital endeavours.

It is important to understand the risks when conducting work online:

  • Awareness: Familiarise yourself with potential online risks, including cyber threats, data breaches, and privacy violations.
  • Research ethics: Consider the ethical implications of your online activities, especially when handling sensitive data or interacting with participants.
  • Legal compliance: Stay informed about legal requirements related to data protection and retention.
  • Balancing research and safety: Prioritise safety while conducting research, especially when collecting data online.

Keep the following in mind:

  • Guard your clicks: Each click matters. Don’t let curiosity lead you to malicious sites.
  • Beware of imposters: Scammers impersonate trusted entities. Double-check identities.
  • Verify then trust: Treat every unexpected request for information with scepticism. Verify before you share.
  • Report suspicious activity: If something seems off, report it. Your action can prevent a breach.

For more guidance on staying safe and secure online, use the dropdown below. You can also explore the Jisc Staying Safe Online guide.

  • Strong passwords: Use unique, complex passwords for each account or system. It is best to use passphrases (3 non-related words with some numbers/capitals/special character interspersed)
  • Two-factor/multi-factor authentication (2FA / MFA): Enable 2FA / MFA whenever possible.
  • Do not share your passwords with others.
  • Be sceptical: Avoid clicking on suspicious links or sharing personal information via email.
  • Verify sources: Double-check sender addresses and URLs.
  • Social media: Review and adjust privacy settings on social platforms. Keep your personal information private. Think carefully before sharing information.
  • App permissions: Limit app permissions to essential functions.
  • HTTPS: Look for the padlock icon in your browser's address bar.
  • Avoid public WiFi: Use secure networks for sensitive tasks. Be cautious using public or free WiFi. Even if it requires a password, they may not be encrypted resulting in others being able to monitor your activity.
  • Ensure all devices used are secured by a PIN, password or equivalent.
  • Where possible ensure your device has encryption enabled to protect data stored on it.
  • Where possible enable remote security. If your phone is lost or stolen and you have a Google Account you can use 'Find your phone'. This will allow you to remotely locate and lock your phone.
  • Data encryption: Encrypt sensitive research data.
  • Collaboration tools: Use secure platforms for sharing and collaborating.
  • Stay Informed: Educate yourself about emerging threats.
  • Cyber awareness training. This is mandatory for all York St John staff. Training can be accessed on the iHasco platform.

The University allows staff to use generative AI (genAI) for their work and work outputs, providing that you do not claim work generated by AI as your own original work and you ensure that you use any generative AI tools appropriately and safely.

Anyone intending to use generative AI (whether engaged in teaching or not) should familiarise themselves with the University Guidance for Students on the Use of Generative Artificial Intelligence. This outlines what Generative AI is, how it works and its limitations.

Support and tools

Use the dropdown below to explore resources, support and tools to help you with any issues you may encounter during your research.

Emergency calls procedure

To call an ambulance dial 9 999 or 0 for switchboard and a member of the reception team will assist.

You must have the following information before calling:

  • Exact location of the patient
  • Brief description of medical condition
  • Sex of patient
  • Age of patient
  • Name (if available)
  • Contact telephone number

If you call the ambulance direct you must inform Security on extension 6444 to enable us to organise direction of the vehicle to the correct location, so as not to lose vital time for the casualty.

Accident reporting

Please visit the Accident reporting page for guidance and to report an accident using the form.

Security services

For emergencies, contact the Security Lodge 24 hours a day, 365 days a year:

First aid

All our Security team are first aid trained and are the first point of contact for any immediate incidents.

A few members of staff are also first aid trained, so can help if more first aiders are needed. Call Reception on 01904 624 624 to find out more.

  • Wellbeing Champions:
    • Share knowledge of employee support services.
    • Advise and direct people to support.
    • Spot signs and symptoms of people struggling with their wellbeing and help via early intervention.
  • Care First Employee Assistant Programme: This is a free wellbeing support and counselling service for all our staff. It offers work and non-work-related support 24/7. All contact is confidential.
  • Chaplaincy
  • Safeguarding charter and policy
  • University Risk Assessment (staff intranet): Risk assessment guidance and forms, safeguarding process, IHASCO safeguarding children course.
  • Welfare training and courses: Bystander Intervention Training, Consent training, Changing Lives: Drugs and Alcohol, Drug and Alcohol Awareness Workshop, Hate Crime Awareness Training.
  • Wellness Action Plans: A Wellness Action Plan is a personal, practical tool that anyone can use, whether you have a mental health problem or not, that helps you identify what keeps you well at work, what causes you to become unwell and how to address a mental health problem at work should you experience one. The plan is intended to allow your manager or supervisor to agree with you how you can be practically supported in the workplace and how to address any mental health needs. The plan is based on a framework developed by the mental health charity MIND and is designed to help you manage your mental health and wellbeing at work. Mind have developed a series of different Wellness Action Plans depending on the working arrangements of the individual:
    • Guide for people working in a workplace
    • Guide for people working remotely
    • Guide for people who are hybrid working
    • Sign up to these on the Wellness Action Plan sign up page on the Mind website.

Related resources

Amos Laar (2014) Researcher vulnerability: An overlooked issue in vulnerability discourses Available at:

Lynette Sikic Micanovic , Stephanie Stelko and Suzana Sakic (2019) Who else Needs Protection? Reflecting on Researcher Vulnerability in Sensitive Research Available at:

Sarah Woods, Tina-Nadia Gopal Chambers, Ardavan Eizadirad (2022) Emotional Vulnerability in Researchers Conducting Trauma-Triggering Research Available at:

Veerle Garrels, Børge Skaland, Evi Schmid (2022) Blurring Boundaries: Balancing between Distance and Proximity in Qualitative Research Studies With Vulnerable Participants Available at:

Xiaorong Tang, Monit Cheung, Shu Zhou, Patrick Leung (2020) The Vulnerable Researcher Phenomenon Available at: