Legal & ethical issues

This module is about the legal and ethical issues to keep in mind when using social media and thus ensure your research profile is raised for all the right reasons, not the wrong ones. The key is to remember that all the laws, policies and social rules that apply in real life also apply on the internet.

Reusing other people’s work

Material on the internet is protected by copyright. You have no legal right to copy other people’s work or make it public on the internet. Use the same rules you would when writing a research paper to determine when you should ask permission to include other people’s work in your blog, web page,  Facebook page or any other service you use to post content online.

Remember that multi-media works will have multiple copyright owners.


Link to other people’s content instead of copying it. If you don’t copy you can’t be accused of copyright infringement.  Link to an organisation’s home page or journal article’s landing page not the PDF (Example of article landing page).

Look for terms of use and rights information on blogs, websites and photo sharing services as these may give you the permission you need without asking.  People generally protect what they think is commercially valuable and share freely when they have no commercial motive.

Reusing work you have already published

When a journal article or book is published, a contract is signed with the publisher. This then controls what you can or can’t do with the content from that time forward. A typical agreement will state what rights you retain and which now belong to the publisher. If there is no detailed information in the agreement look for a general policy on the publisher’s website or email the publisher’s rights and permissions section to ask. (Example: Elsevier’s general journal policy)

Tip: Keep on file a copy of the publishing agreements for each of your publications for easy reference.

Controlling re-use of your work

Tell people what they can and can’t do with your work. Don’t leave to chance. Make it a habit to display terms of conditions of use on any site where you post your intellectual property (thoughts, photos, data etc). Many people still think they can do anything they like with material on the internet.

You can control the re-use of your content by:

Tip: For more official sharing of project information and data speak to the College’s Contracts and Intellectual Property team.

Posting new unpublished work

Answering the question of who owns the intellectual property in research is complicated as researchers work as a team rather than as individuals. The College’s IP policy explains when copyright belongs to you as a student and when it may belong to Imperial or the organisation funding your research. Before sharing your work on a social media site check that it won’t:

  • Damage a patent application
  • Stop you or your supervisor publishing the work later
  • Infringe someone else’s rights
  • Highlight that animal research is done in your lab
  • Break a prior confidentiality agreement
  • Pose a risk to national security

Tip: If you aren’t sure ask your supervisor. Remember that you are trying to promote your work rather than tell people so much that they won’t come to your conference presentation. Give people hints but not the whole story.

terms and conditions

When you sign up to a social media service you agree to their terms and conditions. Make sure you read them so you know what the supplier can do with the content you add to their site and your personal data collected during registration.

Tip: Also consider how reliable a service is. Do you have a back-up copy if Google Drive stops working? What if Twitter loses your tweets?

Personal data

Data protection laws protect personal data (data relating to an identifiable individual) and prevent it being released to the general public. You should therefore not make personal data public via social media tools or use social media tools to share personal information with collaborators. They aren’t secure enough for this purpose.

College Data protection pages

Tip: be careful about the personal data you share on Facebook and other social networking sites. You don’t want someone you’ve never met texting you or ringing your front door bell.

Ethical research

Medical and scientific research is controlled by strict codes of conduct. These apply online.

See Guidelines for proper scientific conduct in research.

Defamation, harassment and restrictions to free speech

If you tweet, blog, write or comment online your words are public and can be read by other people. This means that they can be judged as illegal, inaccurate, or offensive. While the UK generally promotes free speech there are restrictions (see the Liberty website) and you can, like journalists, be sued for defamation (libel and slander). For a list of behaviours you should avoid online read 3a of Imperial’s Blogging terms and conditions .

Tip: If you become a blog or website owner, to protect yourself, you should display an agreed procedure for handling any complaints and monitor contributions to your site. It is common practice to remove any offending content while the complaint is investigated. See Imperial’s Website owners guide for more guidance.

Loss of reputation & impact on others

Social media tools are very public and so it is important that you consider how what you write and publish online might impact on your reputation and that of Imperial, your funders, your colleagues, your family & people who take part of your research. Don’t put online anything that might embarrass you later or cause another person embarrassment, commercial loss or distress.

Tip: Remember many employers will search online to find out more about you.


Watch the ‘Blogs, Twitter, wikis and other web-based tools’ video. Are there legal and ethical issues raised by Imperial researchers that will apply to your work? Write a blog post about legal/ethical issues that you think would be most critical in your research field.

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