Evaluation is a type of research and ethical research is carried out in accordance with a code of conduct. Research is a professional activity and there are key standards which researchers should always follow. These standards help to ensure that no harm is done to any participant (including the researcher) as a result of any research activity, and that participants are treated fairly.
It is always worth spending time at the planning stage of an evaluation to consider any ethical implications of the proposed methodology and research design. This will help you to foresee, avoid, and manage issues that may arise. For example, if you are conducting a survey where one question asks participants if they have ever been injured in a traffic collision and a follow up question asks them to describe the events of that collision, it is foreseeable that recollection of such events could cause emotional distress for participants.
The researcher should consider if the questions are really necessary for the purpose of the evaluation and if there is a better way of uncovering that knowledge. For instance, face to face interviews may be better than postal or internet surveys when evaluating sensitive issues. At least then the researcher will be able to see if the interviewee is getting visibly distressed, and will be able to offer some support or provide contact details of relevant support agencies. Contact details for support agencies could also be included alongside the questions if a postal or internet survey is still used.
One of the key standards which researchers follow is to ensure that informed consent is obtained from participants before data is collected from or about them. This means that participants should be told what it means for them to take part. They should also be informed about any potential harm that might come to them as a result of the involvement in the evaluation. Describing a collision experience, for example, could cause distress. Everyone has the right to choose whether or not to take those risks.
One way in which participants can make that decision for themselves is for the researcher to provide them with an information sheet, before asking them to consent to taking part in the research. The information sheet should clearly explain what the aim of the research is, what research methods will be used, and what the possible risks and benefits to participants might be. After participants have had time to read through this information sheet, or have had it verbally explained to them, and after they have had the opportunity to ask the researcher any questions about their participation, then they are asked to sign a consent form.
The consent form should clearly set out what each participant is agreeing to and it is important that this is fully understood before they sign. Participation in research should always be voluntary and no-body should be coerced or pressured into taking part. If the research only involves asking participants for feedback of, for instance, a training course, workshop, or presentation, then informed consent is not normally required. You can download an example participant information sheet and example consent forms, to adapt for your own purposes, here: example consent forms and information sheet.
If participants are asked to disclose information which is not already available in the public domain, then assurances of confidentiality mean that the researcher agrees not to pass that information on to anyone outside the research team. Data should always be used anonymously in reports, unless participants have requested to be identified. If research data is not anonymised (i.e. participants' personal identifying information is removed) then the data must be treated in accordance with the Data Protection Act.
Whilst confidentiality should always be protected by researchers, they cannot ever "guarantee" confidentiality to participants. This is because a researcher may be forced to disclose the information through a court order, if required to do so by the police. Also the researcher has a duty of care whereby they have a moral obligation to breach confidentiality if they believe the participant is at serious risk of harm, or at serious risk of harming others. The researcher should always make the conditions and limits of confidentiality clear to participants, at the beginning of data collection.
Right to Withdraw
Even when participants have agreed to take part in an evaluation, they should always have the right to withdraw. This means they can decide not to take part at any point. They should also be able to withdraw their answers even after taking part in the evaluation. Participants should be able to withdraw their answers without feeling pressurised not to do so.
The right to withdraw should be explained at the time when a decision regarding their consent to take part is taking place. This information could be included within an information sheet, for example.
You may decide that you need to use some form of incentive to get the required number of people to take part in the evaluation. When using these, however, there are some ethical issues to consider:
- Incentives shouldn't be too large as this may exert pressure on someone to take part rather than compensating someone for their time and effort.
- Incentives should be independent rather than offering a 'benefit in-kind', such as a free driving lesson. Otherwise it could be seen as a way to promote your services in the disguise of evaluation. The use of vouchers works well, especially if the respondents have a choice of where to use them (Love to Shop high street vouchers or Paypal online vouchers are examples).
Research involving children
Children are considered capable of giving informed consent when:
- They can understand in simple language what the research activity is and why it is being conducted
- They can understand the main benefits and risks (risks should be minimal)
- They can remember the information for long enough to make an informed decision
Children under the age of 16 can consent for themselves as long as each child is deemed competent to make that decision. However, it is still considered good practice to consult parents/carer of children under the age of 16, as well.
For more detail see the "Working with Children" Evaluation Topic Guide
Research involving vulnerable adults:
Adults are described as vulnerable if there are grounds to doubt their ability to make a free and informed decision. This may simply be if they have an unequal power status with the researcher due to socio-economic status or education level, or if a pre-existing relationship with the researcher may unduly influence their decision. For example: if a teacher asks their own students to take part in a research study this puts the students in a vulnerable position as they may not want to say no. In this case someone other than a teacher, such as an independent researcher, should lead the evaluation with the class. They should ensure the children understand they do not have to take part if they do not want to and provide an alternative activity where possible.
Other factors may affect an individuals' ability to make a free and informed decision. For instance, illness (physical or mental), old age, substance misuse, learning difficulties, special needs, and recent bereavement may all affect a person's ability to consent.
In some cases the Mental Capacity Act may apply. The Mental Capacity Act is designed to protect people who cannot make decisions for themselves or lack the mental capacity to do so. This could be due to a mental health condition, a severe learning difficulty, a brain injury, a stroke or unconsciousness due to an anaesthetic or accident.
If participants are unable to make a fully informed decision then they must, at the very least, have no objections or display any resistance to do so. The research should still be explained as clearly as possible.
- This topic is based on RoSPA's Research Ethics Guidance. The guidance was written by Professor David Hunter of the Keele University Centre for Professional Ethics (PEAK).