This blog shares some thoughts relating to an upcoming ‘hot topic’ session at the BERA Conference 2019. We focus on the potential pitfalls for educational researchers of gaining written informed consent from participants. While supporting the importance of informed consent, we propose that obtaining written consent from participants can be problematic.
Hot Topic Session: Qualitative Research and Ethics Committees: Differences, Disconnects and Diverging Priorities
BERA Conference 2019
Thursday, 12 September, 14:20–15:50
Room 6.210, University Place
University of Manchester
Click here to view the full Conference programme
Problems arise from the methods and safeguards put in place in our contemporary risk-averse research landscape. For example, participants are now not usually asked to provide personal details in online questionnaires. These questionnaires should include an explanation of the research, communicating with potential participants to help them understand what is involved in the study and how their data will be used, and raising awareness of any potential issues that participants should consider before consenting (BERA, 2018). However, it should be recognised that it could be possible to identify who has completed the questionnaire using ‘cyber-snooping’ techniques. Researchers restrain from this as their intent is to offer participants a ‘safe’ space for their responses, with consent accepted as having been evidenced by the submission of completed questionnaires (Roberts & Allen, 2015). Some human research ethics committees (HRECs) are unhappy with such situations, stipulating the requirement for signed written informed consent forms before data collection.
Equally, in the case of text-based data collected from interviews, observations and focus groups, good practice guides researchers towards using pseudonyms to protect respondents’ anonymity. However, this is potentially in conflict with the personal data, which is required by HRECs to be held by that researcher, contained in written documents, signed by the participants, giving their informed consent. Although the researcher may aim to comply with the requirements of safely storing such documents in line with the Data Protection Act 2018, there are opportunities for them to be lost and for anonymity to be compromised. One such tension might arise in universities when students undertaking master’s/doctoral dissertations feel they need to provide evidence of consent as part of their submission.
Providing personal data such as signatures can be an unreasonable request in some cultural contexts. In countries such as Afghanistan and in sub-Saharan regions, potential participants will refuse to complete anything that requires them to put their name on paper (or screen) (Onvomaha Tindana, Kass, & Akweongo, 2006). In such contexts, research may not be being undertaken or published because HRECs and publishers expect evidence of signed consent. In these contexts, once potential participants come to understand what is involved in the research, why it is being undertaken and how the data produced will be used, they may communicate a willingness to offer informed consent to participate, but without wishing to sign a piece of paper that confirms this. Similarly, there might be those who come to want to be included in the research as they see the study progressing and develop trust in the researcher, and whom a researcher would want to include, but for whom prior consent has not been gained (or declared in the recruitment procedure agreed with the ethics committee) (Busher & Fox, 2019). Should a researcher include these potential participants in the research, or not comply fully with the requirements of the ethical review board when conducting the research?
Head (2018) argues that participants should have a right to negotiate their concerns over privacy, anonymity and consent in ways that they feel are appropriate. This leads to a related issue: should anonymity always be offered, or should a chance for data to be attributed to participants (to respect their intellectual property and to give them a voice) be offered?
It seems that in much research, a participant demonstrates his or her willingness to be part of the process by answering questions or following actions. The question of whether they do or do not wish to sign a form – the only purpose of which is to comply with a requirement of ethical approval – therefore becomes problematic. What do you think?
British Educational Research Association [BERA] (2018), Ethical Guidelines for Educational Research, fourth edition. London. https://www.bera.ac.uk/publication/ethical-guidelines-for-educational-research-2018
Busher, H. & Fox, A. (2019). Chapter 1: Introduction. In H. Busher & A. Fox (Eds.), Ethics in Educational Ethnography: Regulation and Practice. London: Routledge.
Head, G. (2018) Ethics in educational research: Review boards, ethical issues and researcher development. Advance online publication. European Educational Research Journal, 1–12. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1474904118796315
Roberts, L. D. & Allen, P. J. (2015). Exploring ethical issues associated with using online surveys in educational research. Educational Research and Evaluation, 21(2), 95–108.
Onvomaha Tindana, P., Kass, N., & Akweongo, P. (2006). The informed consent process in a rural African setting: a case study of the Kassena-Nankana district of Northern Ghana. IRB Ethics and Human Research, 28(3), 1–6.