Consent in Research

Hello everyone! Phil here to share some thoughts on an important IRB topic – consent. More specifically, what consent looks like in ethical research.

The primary goal of IRBs is to ensure that research protocols account for the wellbeing of participants. One of the elements of this process focuses on the degree to which researchers are giving would-be participants enough information to make an informed decision as to whether they want to participate. It’s not hard to imagine why consent is critical in research practices, because otherwise participants run the risk of being coerced or outright forced into participating in research that may be quite risky (e.g., think Tuskegee Syphilis Study). The gold standard for consent is something known as informed consent. When researchers obtain informed consent, they do so by telling their participants what the research is examining, what that participant can expect to experience as a result of their participation, and the risks and benefits of their participation. Only when all of these elements are included, can a researcher claim that their participants have had all the necessary information needed to make an informed decision. 

But what about instances where research can be corrupted if the participant is told about what is being studied? In other words, what if you need to withhold some information in order to more accurately study something? This is quite common in the social sciences, when participant behavior is often the thing being examined. It is widely thought that in such circumstances, people behave differently if they know that they are being watched (e.g., the Hawthorne Effect). What can we do in these situations? Well, IRBs are understanding of this concern, and there are exceptions made as a result. If true informed consent is not possible given the research focus, then some pieces of information are permitted to be witheld. That’s not to say that researchers shouldn’t tell participants the actual research focus, but instead it should be included in some form of project debrief – especially in those cases where deception may be (justifiably) used. 

Regardless of whether participants are provided with all consent fields or limited consent fields, it still is always necessary to ensure that participants are agreeing to participate willingly, and they understand their right to rescind their consent at any time in the procedure. 

Consent will be an expanded topic in our upcoming blog on the 1976 Belmont Report, a foundational charter for ethical research practices that emerged as a result of the National Research Act of 1974.   

If you would like to discuss any IRB-related topics that we have explored in our blogs (or have yet to discuss), please reach out to us at

« Back to Blog