Participants are required to give informed consent. This means that they should be informed about the purpose of the study, who is funding the study, who the researcher is, how the data will be used, what is required of the participants, how long their involvement will last and that their participation is voluntary (i.e. that they may withdraw from the study without giving a reason). All this information should fit onto one page and allow enough space for the participant and the researcher to sign and date the form. It is good practice to give a copy of the consent form to the participant. Studies requiring ethical approval will be advised on the wording and content of the consent form; examples are usually available from the ethics committees' websites.
Whilst it is clearly important to ensure anonymity and confidentiality for the participant, it is difficult to specify the degree to which this should take place. For instance, should the identifying details of a person (name, place, age, occupation) be changed to a degree that people who are not his/her friend/family member do not recognise him/her or to a degree that family and friend could not identify the interviewee or to such an extent that the participant him/herself could not recognise themselves? Such decisions depend not only on the nature of the research study, but also on whether the participants themselves are public figures. Confidentiality refers to the information provided by the participant but which should not be disclosed. Of course, it would not make sense to interview someone who would not wish that anything they said to be used in the research. Indeed, most participants know that the information they provide will be used. The researcher needs to decide carefully what information is pertinent to the research and how it will be presented. It is the researcher's responsibility to explain to the participant how the data will be used (e.g. quotations from transcripts) and how the identity of the participant will be protected.
It is important to assess how participation in the study might be harmful for some people in the sample. This is particularly so in studies that touch upon sensitive topics which might uncover painful experiences and lead people to disclose information which they have rarely or never previously shared. Less dramatic, though equally important; 'Interviews can have a certain seductive quality: participants may appear comfortable and may disclose information apparently willingly during an interview, but may later regret having been so open. They may also be left with feelings and thoughts stirred up by the interview long after the researcher has moved on'(17).
For these reasons, it is important to confer an understanding of the study and what it involves and to allow the participant to ask questions. The information provided to the participants however needs to be balanced by the consideration that they should not be too pre-informed about the issues of the study as this will impact on the results. It is also advisable to provide the participant with a contact number so that he/she can contact the researcher after the interview. Some ethics committees require contact details of the organisation employing the researcher so to allow participants to file a complaint.
Although researchers should be alert to the discomfort of an interviewee, and even offer to pause the interview, the researcher should not take on the role of an advisor or counsellor. However, it is appropriate to provide the interviewee with information of services and organisations that might be helpful. Cases where the information disclosed by the participants indicates that they might be in risk of being harmed pose serious ethical problems(17). Researchers are advised to discuss such possibilities and how to respond to them with their employers before embarking on the data collection.
Protecting researchers from harm
Although most ethical issues are concerned with the safety and benefit of the participants, the researcher, too, needs to be protected from harm. Most often data collection takes place in a variety of places that are neither fearsome nor frightening. However, the more private settings in which face-to-face interviews take place can be less safe, e.g. when they take place at a participant's home. When interviewing people who are, at least initially, strangers, it is important to strike a balance between sensible caution and paranoia (18). The level of safety procedures might vary depending on the research. A study that involves recruiting participants in a public area (e.g. a hospital ward) allows the researcher and the potential participant to get to know each other (at least briefly), exchange contact details and build a rapport, so that both sides have already conceded some information to the other side. Where recruitment involves Internet resources, researchers should be more cautious and double check information provided by potential participants. Ultimately, it is important to plan ahead and calculate time and other necessary resources into the research budget. Here is a list of helpful tips:
- Gather information about the area you will be researching in.
- Leave an itinerary of your movements with a colleague or friend and contact them when you have returned.
- Assess the layout of the interview location and make a mental note of how to leave the building in an emergency.
- Strike a balance between developing a rapport with the interviewee and how this might be misinterpreted.
- Actively take decisions about the situation.
It is important to establish at an early stage of the research whether ethical approval is required, from which committee, and what procedures and requirements are involved. Most ethics committees or application bodies have Internet websites that can help with some initial questions at the same time as appearing overwhelming. If ethical approval is required, researchers need to be aware that the process can take several months, so that it is important to allow for this time in the overall time-table. Many ethics committees are more used to dealing with quantitative research, randomised control trials or medical studies (e.g. involving human tissue). Researchers may therefore find themselves having to provide an explication of qualitative research methods, and dealing with questions or requirements that do not easily transfer to qualitative research. Patience, flexibility and tenacity are key factors in successful applications.
© I Crinson & M Leontowitsch 2006, G Morgan 2016