By Gary Allen
Consent has a long history deep in the DNA of human research ethics. Failure in consent strategies is at centre stage in some of the biggest scandals and ethical missteps in modern history; it was present in cases like the atrocities in Nazi Germany, the Tuskegee Scandal, Obedience to Authority experiment, Stanford prison experiment and the Tearoom Trade research project, which are often used (and overused) to justify the development of research ethics review processes.
I say overused because the cases are unlikely to inspire researchers across the wide scope of disciplines found in modern research to modify their research practice.
Some jurisdictions, like the United States, strictly define valid consent strategies, even have finely detailed template consent forms. In their worst form, these guidelines present a template consent form that must always be used.
Often, institutional guidance material can treat consent as a tightly defined noun. Consent is a neat single step transaction where participants sign once to indicate their willingness to participate in a project. Alternatively, consent becomes something that is done to participants – ‘participants were consented’.
But such an approach to consent is largely irrelevant, meaningless or unhelpful to a number of circumstances such as:
- humanities and research designs (such as action research) where consent will be negotiated and renegotiated over a period of time;
- longitudinal research;
- projects where the design is interactive and evolving;
- situations where participants might not have a very high level of literacy;
- potential participants who are very capable of considering and protecting their own interests;
- cultural contexts where there may be a more collective sensibility; and
- situations where further specific consent is required (such as the inclusion of a photograph in promotional material).
It might also be observed that yet another long form in legalese is probably not the best way to encourage potential participants to reflect on the realities of participating in the project and implications of their decision.
In such situations, it is helpful to provide guidance on what should be included in consent materials. The guidelines should encourage novel and innovative approaches, that are relevant to the specific circumstances and respectful to the potential participants.
In Australia, this is precisely what the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research intends. The unfortunate truth is that this is not what many of us are doing in our practice.
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. (29 November 2021) Think of, and treat, consent as a powerful and complex verb, not a strictly defined and constrained noun. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/think-of-and-treat-consent-as-a-powerful-and-complex-verb-not-a-strictly-defined-and-constrained-noun/