Conducting your research

Written consent?

What happened?

A study was being carried out with a community sample of adults.  As part of the informed consent process, the researchers had an information sheet and a consent form, with tick boxes, which potential participants were asked to sign before the research proceeded.

On one occasion, the researcher went through the information sheet with a potential participant, who confirmed that he would like to proceed with the research.  The researcher then asked the participant to sign the consent form.  At this point, the participant revealed that he could not read, and said that he really wanted to take part in the research, but did not want to sign a form that he could not read.  He asked if he could be interviewed without signing the form.

What did the researcher do?

The researcher took time to explain to the participant what the form was for, and to read it through with him carefully.  He talked about what the form would be used for – explaining that it would be kept securely, but separately from the study data (which would be anonymous), but that it had been required by an ethics committee so that they could be sure that no one was being pressured to take part against their will.  He explained that he needed the form to be signed before he could go on with the interview, and suggested that the participant might want to think about it, and offered to come back another day.  They chatted informally for a while about the research and after some time had passed, the participant decided that he would sign the form. The researcher read through the form again, line by line, and the participant signed.  The interview went ahead.

In this case, the researcher was concerned that he had coerced – or at least persuaded – the participant to sign the form, and that he had not behaved ethically in doing so.  He had behaved in accordance with the requirements of the ethics committee, but the incident highlighted the tension between the procedural requirement, and the researcher’s judgement of what constituted ethical practice within the research interaction.  It would not have felt ethical to exclude the participant when he wanted to take part, but equally, it felt unethical to encourage someone to sign a form they could not read.  Would you have done things differently?