Research Methods: Considering Ethics in your research

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

What does gaining informed consent mean?

Before you can proceed with data collection it is necessary to go through a process of gaining informed consent from potential participants in the research. A key issue relating to gaining informed is competence (Wiles, Heath, Crow and Charles, 2005), which relates to whether an individual is able to:

  • understand the potential implications of involvement in a research project
  • make an informed decision as to whether this would be in their best interests.

For children and young people under the age of 16, and also vulnerable adults, it is usually required that parents or carers provide the informed consent. The reason for this is that it is necessary to ensure that the person giving consent can understand as fully as possible what participation in the research will involve and any implications of publication of the data.

Professional gatekeepers such as those leading institutions, do not have legal rights in relation to the decision of individuals in their care to participate in the research, and CANNOT give consent for individuals to participate in a reserach project. However they do have legal responsibility for their well-being (Masson, 2004) and as part of this remit, professional gatekeepers need to make decisions about the access which researchers have to individuals within the context that they are responsible for e.g. their school. Also, professional gatekeepers have control over the information that is given to potential participants (and where appropriate their parents or carers).

Even where a parent / guardian is involved in the process of gaining informed consent, it is still essential that the individual themselves is given the opportunity to gain an understanding of the research as fully as possible and that their wishes are fully taken into account. In order to make this possible information about the project needs to be provided in an accessible form and the researcher needs to make it explicit that they would like the participants themselves to be involved in the decision-making process.

Providing information about the research as clearly and accessibly as possible enables potential participants (often supported by gatekeepers) to make informed decisions about participation in a research project.

This can take the form of an information sheet which provides the potential participant with the information they will need to make an informed decision about whether they want to become involved in the research. Following this information sharing process it is necessary to gain written consent, usually in the form of a signed declaration. Requiring participants (or parents/carers) to sign a declaration is to ensure that they are protected and that their rights are respected.

The process of gaining informed consent from potential participants in your research is a complex process in which you need to consider:

  • what information needs to be provided;
  • the form that this information should take;
  • who should be involved in the process of giving consent e.g. gatekeepers in addition to participants themselves;
  • how you will go about the process of gaining informed consent.

The section ‘Ethics in practice’ has support material to help you develop your own information sheet and declaration.