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Informed Consent

The principles of respect, beneficence, and justice should guide the process of conducting research with human participants – from assessing the risks/benefits of participating in your project, to selecting participants, to obtaining informed consent for their participation, to interacting with and collecting information from them, to dealing with the information they provide to you.

In order for the individuals whom you invite to participate in your project to grant informed consent, you must adequately advise them about the research and allow them to make a series of voluntary choices about whether and how to take part and about the ways in which the information that they provide will be managed, used, shared, and potentially re-used in the future.

Tensions may arise between protecting human participants (on the one hand), and using the information they provided to you in your scholarly work and potentially sharing it with other scholars (on the other). Such tensions can be particularly acute in qualitative research when the information gathered from human participants is deployed and shared in a form that is very close to the form in which it was collected (i.e., when data undergo little transformation or reduction prior to deployment and sharing). When this is the case, using, sharing, and re-using qualitative data may be more likely to result in human participants’ identities being disclosed.

Obtaining informed consent should involve open communication between you and the individuals whom you invite to participate in your study.  You have to ensure that these individuals can make voluntary, informed choices about participation.

You should describe to participants in an explicit and comprehensible manner what private/sensitive information and what project-relevant information you will collect from them through your interaction. You should also discuss how you will manage, use, and potentially share that information, and how other scholars might re-use it. If a participant requests confidentiality, you must describe what steps you will take to prevent them from being identified as you manage, use, and share their information and as others re-use it. You may describe strategies such as de-identification and placing access controls on the data when they are shared.  These descriptions can be included in the project information sheet that you provide to participants as well as in your informed consent script.  You should obtain participants’ explicit consent with regard to each process that you describe before beginning to collect information. Confirming that participants have fully understood your descriptions is your ethical responsibility.

Documentation for Soliciting Informed Consent

Formal regulations only specify basic components that should be addressed in the informed consent process. It is each researcher’s responsibility to solicit consent in a way that is appropriate for the research content and context (e.g., “group consent” in traditional societies). Two types of documentation are helpful in doing so: a project information sheet that describes your project, and an informed consent form (or verbal script) that solicits a potential participant’s consent to be included in it.  Exactly how you use these documents will depend on your research and the context in which it is being conducted.

Project Information Sheet

The project information sheet should be included in the documentation submitted for approval by the Institutional Review Boards  (IRBs) that have jurisdiction over your project.  The sheet

  • describes the general topic of the research project and its intended contribution;
  • discusses the potential benefits and risks to each participant;
  • lists institutional affiliation and contact information for those to whom a participant can turn with questions or concerns (e.g., for the research team member/s who will be interacting with the participants directly, as well as for any supervising researchers with responsibility over the project).

While the information may be related verbally to a participant (e.g., in cases of illiterate participants), the sheet must be left with the participant for their future reference unless this would expose them to additional risks.

Informed Consent Form

Traditionally, researchers have asked project participants to read and sign a written form that offers participants choices about how to engage with the project and how the information that they convey will be used.

When using a written form is inadvisable or impossible (e.g., in certain cultural or security contexts; for an anonymous phone survey), a verbal consent procedure can replace the written form, if approved by the IRB. Verbal consent may be less off-putting to a participant and does not leave a physical record that could put them at risk. However, it can be difficult to clearly convey all relevant issues verbally, as abstract ideas of privacy and the terms used to describe data collection and use might be unfamiliar to a participant. Additionally, the absence of a personal signature documenting a participant’s assent might bring greater risk for researchers should questions arise later about the participation. QDR thus recommends that researchers who employ verbal consent record that consent as part of the interview when possible, and/or obtain and retain some sort of written record of the consent.

Soliciting Informed Consent for Sharing Data

As data sharing norms emerge in qualitative social science, researchers increasingly have a professional obligation to collect and manage their data with long-term preservation, sharing with the research community, and re-use in mind.  Accordingly, we suggest that you try to avoid making overly restrictive promises to your human participants that unduly limit your ability to share with other scholars the data resulting from your interaction with those participants.

Your informed consent script should include the following types of information about data sharing:

  • who will be able to access the data (typically, only scholars)
  • what the data will be used for (research and/or teaching or other specifically non-commercial purposes)
  • confidentiality protections (if the data are shared via digital repositories, secondary users may be required to agree [by signing an official form] not to try to identify participants in any research study).

One model that could serve qualitative researchers well might be “general consent.” General consent is frequently used in research where materials are collected with the idea that unanticipated applications will be developed to study them repeatedly from multiple angles. Participants are asked to consent to have the information they provide be made available to the scholarly community for future work without pre-specified research questions, hypotheses or analytic procedures.

Writing Informed Consent Documents for Data Sharing

QDR invites researchers planning projects to use the sample language below as a starting point.  You are also welcome to contact our staff to discuss tailoring the informed consent process further, and generating documentation for specific scenarios (telephone interviews, fieldwork with children or other vulnerable populations, audio-visual collections, and so on).

Sample One
Source: ICPSR, Guide to Social Science Data Preparation and Archiving: Best Practice Throughout the Data Life Cycle, 5th edition, p. 13.

“We will make our best effort to protect your statements and answers so that no one will be able to connect them with you. These records will remain confidential. Federal or state laws may require us to show information to university or government officials [or sponsors], who are responsible for monitoring the safety of this study. Any personal information that could identify you will be removed or changed before files are shared with other researchers or results are made public.”

Sample Two
Source: Pienta, Amy, and Kaye Marz, “The National Addiction and HIV Data Archive Program: Navigating Your IRB to Share Research Data.”

“The information in this study will only be used in ways that will not reveal who you are. You will not be identified in any publication from this study or in any data files shared with other researchers. Your participation in this study is confidential. Federal or state laws may require us to show information to university or government officials [or sponsors], who are responsible for monitoring the safety of this study.”

Sample Three
Source: Cornell IRB (Consent Templates > Social Behavioral Template)

“De-identified data from this study may be shared with the research community at large to advance science and health. We will remove or code any personal information that could identify you before files are shared with other researchers to ensure that, by current scientific standards and known methods, no one will be able to identify you from the information we share. Despite these measures, we cannot guarantee anonymity of your personal data.”

Soliciting Informed Consent for Sharing Data Retroactively

If you did not establish appropriate provisions for sharing data when you were collecting information for a research project, it may still be possible to share the data you generated.  You should discuss the possibilities with your IRB. One option is re-contacting project participants and asking if they will grant consent retroactively for the information they provided to be preserved for the long term, shared, and used by other scholars. Please note that an amendment to your original IRB application will typically be necessary in such cases.