Freely given informed consent entails:

  • giving sufficient and appropriate information about the research, to allow participants to make a meaningful choice about whether or not to take part
  • ensuring that there is no explicit or implicit coercion, so prospective participants can make an informed and free decision on their possible involvement. 

Information for participants should be provided in an accessible and comprehensive format, typically in written form (or in a form that participants can access after the end of the research interaction). Time should be allowed for the participants to consider their choices and to discuss their decision with others if appropriate. Research should not normally proceed until participants have indicated their consent and this has been recorded. This can typically be done by asking participants to sign a consent form, but in some cases it may be more appropriate (and more ethical) to use alternative approaches to record consent.

Consent, however, is not simply given through the formal signing of a consent document at the start of research. Instead it should, as far as possible, and in an appropriate balance with resources available and researchers' responsibility to truth-telling, be open to revision and withdrawal throughout the research lifecycle of a project.

Informed consent should take into account the long-term use of participant research data, including the potential for further data linkage and preservation of data when obtaining consent. Participants need, as far as possible, to give specific consent if data are to be archived and shared. In some cases it may not be appropriate to archive data, but this should be discussed at the earliest opportunity with an appropriate ESRC data service provider, for example the UK Data Service.

When eliciting consent, researchers should make clear the limits to confidentiality, particularly when working with potentially vulnerable individuals or groups, for example children, families and vulnerable populations, or individuals involved in illegal activities. If an interview reveals that a participant or another person identified in the interview is in significant danger, the researcher will be obliged to take action in response to that disclosure to protect the participant or third parties.

Research organisations and researchers should have established procedures, necessary systems and appropriate contacts to activate help and support in the event of a disclosure. If the researcher feels it is necessary to breach confidentiality, the participant should, wherever possible, be informed what action is being taken by the researcher, unless to do so would increase risk to those concerned. In projects collecting data on criminal behaviour, it may be necessary to explain to participants that confidentiality will be preserved as far as the law permits. Any disclosures of otherwise confidential information revealed to avert serious harm should be fully justified in the public interest and researchers must be able to defend their actions fully. Disclosures should only be made to parties empowered to act on the information.