The three Questions Researchers need to address to protect Participants in research from harm
Identifying potential risks of harm
Managing risks and avoiding harm to participants and researchers, key things can influence whether a participant suffers harm during a research project:
- individuals can find participating in research stressful, especially if they are vulnerable
- hidden or suppressed feelings or memories may be uncovered
- additional concerns may come up
- participants may worry about what they have shared.
Researchers must access whether the research or the inclusion of child participants is justified. Research for the sake of research is not ethically sound especially when it may expose children to harm.
Whenever possible investigators should obtain the consent of participants. In practice, this means it is not sufficient to simply get potential participants to say “Yes”. They also need to know what it is that they are agreeing to. In other words, the psychologist should, so far as is practicable explain what is involved in advance and obtain the informed consent of participants. Before the study begins the researcher must outline to the participants what the research is about and then ask their consent (i.e. permission) to take part. An adult (18ys +) capable of giving permission to participate in a study can provide consent. Parents/legal guardians of minors can also provide consent to allow their children to participate in a study.
However, it is not always possible to gain informed consent. Where the researcher can't ask the actual participants, a similar group of people can be asked how they would feel about taking part. If they think it would be OK then it can be assumed that the real participants will also find it acceptable. This is known as presumptive consent. However, a problem with this method is that there might there be a mismatch between how people think they would feel/behave and how they actually feel and behave during a study? In order, that consent is ‘informed’, consent forms may need to be accompanied by an information sheet for participants setting out information about the proposed study (in lay terms) along with details about the investigators and how they can be contacted.
Protection of Participants
Researchers must ensure that those taking part in research will not be caused by distress. They must be protected from physical and mental harm. This means you must not embarrass, frighten, offend or harm participants. Normally, the risk of harm must be no greater than in ordinary life, i.e. participants should not be exposed to risks greater than or additional to those encountered in their normal lifestyles. The researcher must also ensure that if vulnerable groups are to be used (elderly, disabled, children, etc.), they must receive special care. For example, if studying children, make sure their participation is brief as they get tired easily and have a limited attention span.
Researchers are not always accurately able to predict the risks of taking part in a study and in some cases, a therapeutic debriefing may be necessary if participants have become disturbed during the research. Participants and the data gained from them must be kept anonymous unless they give their full consent. No names must be used in a research report.
What do we do if we find out something which should be disclosed (e.g. criminal act)? Researchers have no legal obligation to disclose criminal acts and have to determine which is the most important consideration: their duty to the participant vs. duty to the wider community. Ultimately, decisions to disclose information will have to be set in the context of the aims of the research.
Respect for anonymity and confidentiality
The issue of confidentiality and anonymity is closely connected with the rights of beneficence, respect for dignity and fidelity. ANA suggests anonymity is protected when the subject's identity can not be linked with personal responses. If the researcher is not able to promise anonymity he has to address confidentiality, which is the management of private information by the researcher to protect the subject's identity. Levine advocates that confidentiality means that individuals are free to give and withhold as much information as they wish to the person they choose. The researcher is responsible to "maintain the confidentiality that goes beyond ordinary loyalty". Clarke addresses the ethical dilemma of the researcher when confidentiality must be broken because of the moral duty to protect society. The researchers must always bear in mind all psychological and social implications that a breach of confidentiality may have on subjects. To protect participants, they have to inform them of their rights and use all possible coding systems that they regard appropriate in each case.