Informed consent

I am currently working on a case study on responsible conduct of research in the context of open research collaboration. I have chosen three research projects that have been conducted online completely openly, with an open invitation for anyone to particpate. I won’t name the projects yet for the simple reason that I am intending to interview the key researchers of those three projects, but haven’t approached all of them yet, and I feel it would be a little bit tacky if they were to hear about my project indirectly. So I’ll get back to the projects as soon as I have made my plans known to the persons involved.

What I want to discuss here is the pratical aspects of forming informed consent for research subjects. As I am planning on contacting who are hopefully my interviewees-to-be I have been thinking a lot about the information that I owe to them about my project.

Informed consent is a central concept to the ethics of human research, i. e. research on human subjects. Here’s what my wise friend Wikipedia says about informed consent:

“An informed consent can be said to have been given based upon a clear appreciation and understanding of the facts, implications, and consequences of an action. To give informed consent, the individual concerned must have adequate reasoning faculties and be in possession of all relevant facts.”

The concept was first introduced in the domain of medical sciences, but is equally important to research in humanities and social and behavioural sciences, that can often involve minors or deal with sensitive issues, such as domestic abuse, sexual orientations or policital views, just to name a few examples.

My research subject, which deals with people in their professional roles, is not sensitive, but because of my commitment to the principles of openness, requires thorough ethical reflection. There is practically no precedence concerning open unanonymized qualitative interview data, at least that I know of. I will get back to the challenges I have experienced when trying to find a repository for archiving and sharing my data in another blogpost. But before I can archive, let alone share, any data, I need to be sure that my research subjects understand what they are getting involved in and agree to everything that I’m doing.

In order to inform my interviewees I have drafted a project descrption, which can be found as a Google document here. The document has been approved by the University of Helsinki Ethical Review Board in the Humanities and Social and Behavioural Sciences (my second supervisor is the chair of the board, but she recused herself from the decision making in my case). I have followed the Finnish Advisory Board on Research Integrity (FABRI) ethical principles in the humanities and social and behavioural sciences in putting together the document:

Information regarding a study should include at least the following:

1) the researcher’s contact information,

2) the research topic,

3) the method of collecting data and the estimated time required,

4) the purpose for which data will be collected, how it will be archived for secondary use, and

5) the voluntary nature of participation.

Subjects may ask for additional information regarding the study and researchers should prepare for this in advance.

Assenting to be interviewed can be considered as consenting to the interview data being used for the purpose of the research project in question without any additional paperwork. Concerning the archiving and sharing of the data I have decided to ask for a written consent. The consent form I have formulated follows the example given by the Language Bank of Finland (I can’t find the model form anymore after they have updated the website, sorry for that), with some minor altercations and additions. At the moment Zenodo looks like the most likely repository for my data, but as I mentioned above, I will get back to this issue, since it has caused me a lot of headaches. Stay tuned.

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