Oversight of security-sensitive research material in UK universities: guidance

This guidance concerns the storage and circulation of security-sensitive research material. If circulated carelessly, such material is sometimes open to misinterpretation by the authorities and can put researchers at risk of arrest and prosecution under counter-terrorism legislation.


This document is an updated version of guidance first published in 2012. Minor revisions include references to recent counter-terrorism legislation, as well as recommendations for ensuring that Prevent leads are included in information sharing and training in relation to security-sensitive research procedures where relevant.

This guidance:

  • Includes updated references to counter-terrorism legislation that universities should be aware of
  • Outlines specific ethical issues and gives a template for a questionnaire which universities might incorporate into an ethics approval process.
  • Offers a model for a typical internal university rapid response process if problems do occur, which might be used by institutions to adapt practices and processes.
  • Outlines what training might involve for university ethics officers (or their counterparts) adapting or applying the models
  • Includes recommendations for involving Prevent leads in training and information around the safe storage and circulation of security-sensitive research

The guidance recommends that:

  • Procedures for dealing with security-sensitive research in UK universities should be embedded in research ethics approval processes, involving online questionnaires for researchers at universities
  • Security-sensitive research material should be kept off personal computers and on specially designated university servers supervised by university ethics officers. This material could be accessed easily and securely by researchers and would not be transmitted or exchanged.
  • Ethics officers should be a first point of contact for internal university and police enquiries about suspect security-sensitive material associated with a university or a university member. 
  • Comprehensive advice from universities to all university-based internet users should highlight the legal risks of accessing and downloading from sites subject to the provisions of counter-terrorism legislation: reading this advice should be a condition of university email account ownership.
  • A training scheme for ethics officers and IT officers in universities regarding the ethics review process and secure storage of sensitive material should be put in place. This training should also involve Prevent leads where relevant.


Notes: Relevant counter-terrorism legislation introduced or updated since 2012

  • Section 58 of the Terrorism Act 2000 makes it an offence if a person 'collects or makes a record of information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.' A modification by the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019 also introduced the offence of viewing or otherwise accessing via the internet documents or records containing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism. There is a defence if the information is used for academic research purposes.
  • Sections 2 and 3 of the Terrorism Act 2006 outlaw the dissemination of terrorist publications, including by electronic means, and give a very wide definition of 'terrorist publication' and 'statements' that could be construed as encouraging or inducing the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism. Section 2 of the Terrorism Act 2006 has been amended by sections 5(6) and 5(7) of the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Act 2019. Academic research is not a defence under the Terrorism Act 2006.
  • Section 26(1) of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 imposes a duty on 'specified authorities', when exercising their functions, to have due regard to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This is also known as Prevent.


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