An inexperienced researcher was carrying out a study that involved doing developmental tests with children in schools. By prior arrangement, she would visit the family home, and would seek consent to arrange to visit the child at school.
On one occasion, the researcher visited a family for whom English was an additional language. Both parents and their children were at home, and their English was limited, but the researcher judged they had understood, and consented. They signed consent for the school visit, and made the researcher very welcome – even insisting that she stayed for lunch.
A week or so later, as arranged, the researcher visited the school to see the child. On arrival, the head teacher explained that the child’s older sister had said her parents were very worried about the visit – they didn’t know who the researcher was, and that a neighbour (who spoke the family’s language) had read the information leaflet and told the parents that the researcher was probably a social worker. It was clear that they hadn’t understood when they consented to the school visit.
What did the researcher do?
She ended the research interaction. She asked the head teacher to explain to the children, and apologised for the misunderstanding. She talked through next steps with the head teacher, and the head arranged for someone who spoke the family’s language (a worker in the school, who was known to the family) to contact them and apologise, and explain the misunderstanding. The researcher also removed the family’s data from the study, and the school worker told the family that was being done.
Lessons for the future
If in any doubt, use an interpreter. Don’t be afraid to terminate a research interaction if you have concerns about a participant’s understanding – it’s better to come back when you are better prepared than to muddle through and jeopardise informed consent.
Regardless of linguistic understanding, potential participants may not understand what research is, or the truly voluntary nature of participation. This may be a particular consideration if they come from countries where research is less common, or where individual freedoms are constrained. They may just see you as an authority figure.
The power differential between a professional researcher and a participant may mean that people feel coerced to agree to take part (even if you think you are being very nice, and think you are being very clear – and even if they make you feel very welcome).