Research Methods: Considering Ethics in your research

Eira Patterson | View as single page | Feedback/Impact

Gaining informed consent in practice

Initially the process of gaining informed consent appears to be a straightforward process, however when you begin to look at what this means in practice there are several issues to think about. Below are some questions to consider when you design the information sheet for the project and plan how you will manage the process of gaining informed consent:

  • Is the information about your research provided in a form that the participant can fully understand? For research that involves children and young people a letter is usually sent home for the parent or guardian (who act as gatekeepers) to read. Consider whether they can actually understand the information presented as you need to remember that the domain of research is associated with specialist terminology and unfamiliar concepts. In areas of social disadvantage or for parents for whom English is an additional language accessing the text may be insurmountable. In these cases you need to consider an additional information sharing approach, such as being available to talk to parents before or after school to explain your research. Research carried out by Kent (1996) has shown that the wording of information sheets can be a barrier to people agreeing to becoming involved in the research and it is important that you make the information as accessible and non-threatening as possible.
  • What are the potential future implications of your research for participants? It is difficult to predict all the potential implications for participants of engagement in a research project and the possible impact of subsequent dissemination of the research findings. However it is important to brief participants as fully as possible on the potential implications the research may have for them. For example if there is a possibility that the research findings may be published in a journal, include this in the information sheet.
  • How much information about the research design should you share with participants? In many cases, providing detail of the research questions may have an impact on the validity and reliability of the data collected, as this knowledge may influence the behaviour or responses of the participants. This will then create a tension in the decision making process about the amount of information you provide. Often it is possible to word aspects of the information sheet so that sufficient information is provided to participants to enable them to make informed choices, without compromising the research. However this is a delicate balance and it is important for you to ask yourself if anything that has been omitted could have an impact on the participant’s decision to be involved in the research. The bottom line is to ensure that you have been ethical in the level of detail in the information provided and adhered to guidelines published by professional bodies such as BERA and this will ensure that you have complied with legal frameworks relating to the ethical aspects of your research.

Both the BERA (2011) and the ESRC (2015) guidelines recognise that there may be occasions where the requirement for confidentiality may have to be breached to avoid significant harm or criminal activity, such as in disclosure of child abuse. The ESRC Framework specifically suggests that: Researchers should, when eliciting consent, make clear the limits to confidentiality particularly when working with potentially vulnerable individuals or groups. It is necessary to develop a protocol for dealing with child protection or criminal disclosures, and this should be included in the information you provide as part of the informed consent process (McLaughlin, 2015).