Informed consent must be obtained before you can use people as your research subjects.
What is informed consent?
You must gain what is known as ‘informed consent’ before you can use people as your research subjects.
This means the participant is fully aware of the nature and purpose of your research, what their role in it will be, and how the data they provide will be subsequently used.
If you wish the data to be retained for future research, by yourself or others, that should be clearly stated.
Consent must be actively provided, rather than assumed or implicit.
To ensure willing consent, make sure you recruit people ethically.
That means not pressurising people to take part by exploiting friendships, business or employer/employee relationships.
It is acceptable to provide limited incentives to encourage participation, such as entry into a prize draw, providing the value of the prizes is not excessive. Cash prizes should be avoided. Participants can however be offered reasonable compensation for the costs of participating, such as travel and lunch expenses.
The best way of ensuring informed consent is to provide potential subjects with a printed information sheet, that outlines everything the subject needs to know about your work and their involvement in it.
This should be written in clear English — or the language best suited to your target group — and designed to suit your intended audience.
UCL provides sample information sheets that you should edit to suit your specific project. This means customising the text to reflect what you plan to do, removing any parts of the sheet that do not apply to your project, and simplifying the language so it is easier to understand.
The sample sheet also includes annotations intended as a guide to the researcher. These should be deleted before giving the document to potential recruits.
Your information sheet should be put on UCL Letterhead
Failure to do this will lead to delays in gaining ethics approval.
In some cases, it may be more appropriate to provide information about your project verbally - for example, if your research subject cannot read.
After providing sufficient information to inform the subject, they are then asked to provide their consent. This may involve:
- Signing a printed consent form, the design of which should match the information sheet provided and be printed on UCL Letterhead
- Giving verbal consent, where a signature is impractical - for example, when conducting an interview online.
For anonymous online research, consent can be assumed through completion of an online survey/questionnaire without the need for a consent form – but that should be confirmed in the Information provided at the start of the process.
Children over the age of 16 can sign their own consent form if deemed able to do so. For children under 16, informed consent is provided by their parent or legal guardian, while the child themselves should also provide their assent to the study.
The information provided in the Consent Form must be consistent with that given on the Information Sheet.
The Right to Withdraw
Participants should always be informed that involvement in your project is voluntary, and that they can exercise their right to withdraw and have the data they have provided deleted.
You may wish to set a date by which a request to do so should be made - usually a certain time before you intend to complete your analysis/writing up of the data. Once your dissertation/research has been completed, and either submitted or published, withdrawal no longer becomes practical.
This date should be clearly stated on the information sheet and consent form.
If a paper questionnaire has not been completed, you should discard it, as this suggests the participant has withdrawn their consent.