Consent is the central act in research ethics, as set out in the 1947 Nuremberg Code. The 1964 Helsinki Declaration stipulated that valid consent is properly informed and also freely given – without pressures such as coercion, threats or persuasion. The Nuremberg Code and Helsinki Declaration remain at the foundation of principles of consent in research today. The ESRC Framework for Research Ethics has two core principles concerned with freely given and fully informed consent - elsewhere these principles are captured in the concept of valid consent.
Principle Two states that:
‘Research subjects must be informed fully about the purpose, methods and intended possible uses of the research, what their participation in the research entails and what risks, if any, are involved.’
Principle Four states:
‘Research participants must participate in a voluntary way, free from any coercion.’
Respect for people’s consent or refusal helps to prevent harm and abuse, such as their feeling deceived, exploited, shamed, or otherwise wronged by researchers. Participants and researchers may define ‘harm’ very differently. The consent process needs to allow time to clarify any differences. Researchers may then gain new insights into risks, and how to reduce them.
Consent is therefore a process – not a simply yes or no. It is the process by which potential participants can decide if it is worth taking part in a study despite any risks and costs. This may sound rather extreme for a decision to take part in a small study, but respect for consent sets standards of respect for the whole relationship between the researchers and participants.
We’d suggest that the ESRC principles on freely given and fully informed consent should be your ‘default’ position – that’s what ethics committees will expect. The ESRC FRE does allow for exceptions to the principle of fully informed consent – in cases where the research design necessitates covert, deceptive or misleading research, but you need to think very carefully about whether an exception is justified for your research, and why.
Most importantly, be prepared. You need to be able to justify your approach to research ethics within your design. If you plan to deviate in any way from these principles, you can expect to be challenged during the ethics review process, so prepare your case extra carefully and build in plenty of time for dialogue with the ethics committee.
If you think your research will not be able to adhere to these principles, and ensure fully informed consent from participants, you ought to read more about the ethics of working in this way, so that you are confident that you can explain and justify your approach. You might want to include a discussion of relevant ethics literature in your applications for funding, and subsequently for ethics review, to help you show why it is necessary in your particular case. You can find some examples in our further reading.