It is a researcher’s ethical responsibility to ensure that the data, analysis, methods, and any decision-making processes used within their research projects are clearly communicated and remain transparent.  This allows readers to evaluate the research and its processes. This is important when using qualitative data as it is often subjective, open to interpretation, and emergent in nature.  

Qualitative research often faces criticism for its lack of reproducibility and replicability. This is because of the subjective and interpretative nature of qualitative analysis. For example, the collection and analysis of data is heavily influenced by the researcher, and their inferences or interpretations of the data. Being transparent about the way in which data is used, and how data collection and analysis is carried out can allow others to verify the findings of a project via replication.  Qualitative data should not be quantified. Whilst this is often argued to lack credibility, it is not the aim of the method to do so. Quantifying qualitative findings can also be misleading and an inappropriate use of the data.  

Being transparent can also help to manage the expectations of participants and build trust. This can ensure that participants fully understand the purpose of the research project and what their involvement will look like, allowing for informed decisions to be made regarding their participation.  

Consent means offering individuals real choice and control. This gives autonomy to the participant, builds trust and engagement in your research, and helps to build and maintain researcher and organisational reputation. Consent should be “informed”. This means ensuring that the participant understands the research that they are taking part in. 

It is important for a researcher to reiterate consent and the right to withdraw at the beginning of the discussion. Whilst participants may have given consent prior to arriving, they may feel less comfortable consenting when they see the environment, the researcher, or other participants.  Researchers should always obtain consent prior to participation, but it may also be necessary to monitor and update consent with a participant should the research change, if the participant displays signs of distress or discomfort, or if the participant is required to take part in more than one research activity or discussion.  

Participation in research is voluntary, and participants should be made aware of their right to withdraw from the study at any point. This should be discussed prior to consent and reiterated after the research session. In most instances, withdrawing from the study will also mean that the data collected from the participant is also deleted.  

Whilst participants are normally able to withdraw their consent at any point, it is important to consider the extent to which this can be achieved in a group setting. Participants may find it hard to withdraw from the group once it has begun, as this may cause embarrassment or disruption within the group. Whilst participants should not be required to give a reason as to why they wish to revoke their consent, this may also be difficult within a group environment, and participants may feel like they need to justify why they are leaving to the group.   

When participants withdraw from a group setting, they may expect that this also includes the withdrawal of their data. This too can present difficulties for the researcher, as analysis may be based upon the discussion and interaction between participants, rather than from what each individual may say.  

Insights from the data are constructed by all participants and researchers involved within the discussion. This means removing sections of dialogue may make interpreting the discussion more difficult and may affect the quality of the data and results. To address this issue, researchers should make it clear to participants that whilst they can withdraw from the study at any time and may ask that their data collected prior to their withdrawal is not quoted in the study results, complete withdrawal of their contribution may not be possible. This should be clearly communicated to participants prior to initial consent.    

You may wish to audio or video record your discussion to aid your data collection. Recordings can be transcribed and then used for analysis. This can allow for interviewers to focus on facilitating the discussion, not having to take lots of notes throughout the conversation and ensure they are capturing correct quotes and the participant voice. You will need to ask participants to consent to be recorded if you plan to do so.  

Participant Information Materials

Participants must be given clear, concise information about the project and their participation before taking part in a research project. Researchers can provide participants with information about the research through different types of materials, both on paper and online. This must include all the necessary information for a participant to decide whether they would like to take part.  

You should consider the needs of your participant group when communicating this information. For example, you may wish to present this information in a short video, or as interactive presentation. Participants should always be given the opportunity to discuss the information given to them and have the opportunity to ask any questions about the research before they consent to taking part.  

Reimbursements and Incentives

Participants are often offered reimbursement to cover the cost of any expenses for taking part in research. However, you should consider whether this is appropriate for your research and the participants taking part, and what kind of reimbursement is being offered.  

Incentives differ from reimbursements as they are offered as a token of appreciation to people in exchange for their participation in a study. Incentives may include cash payments, gifts, gift vouchers, and entry into prize draws. However, there are several ethical considerations which need to be taken into account before offering incentives to participants.  

Whilst incentives may help to boost recruitment, in most cases, it is best for research participants to be genuine volunteers, who are happy to participate without the added influence of an incentive. Incentives can bias participation, as participants who are drawn into the study by the incentive may be less representative of the population. Participants may also be more likely to give answers which they think are ‘correct’ or will please the researcher, to make sure they receive the incentive.  

Incentives can also influence an individual’s decision to participant in your research. This can make it more difficult to get legitimate consent from participants. It is also important to consider whether participants will feel comfortable withdrawing from the research, if they are offered an incentive for taking part. You should make it clear to participants prior to data collection that they will still receive the full incentive, and this does not affect their right to withdraw.  

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Mitigations and Advice

  • Participants should be able to ask questions throughout the research process to ensure that they are accurately informed, and researchers should seek to answer these questions quickly and clearly. All information given to participants should be accessible and tailored appropriately to the individual.  
  • An explanation of the outputs and recommendations arising from the project should be made accessible soon after the work is complete. Researchers should consider how this can be effectively delivered to different audiences, for maximum impact. For example, different groups may engage better with a face-to-face workshop than a written summary.  
  • It may be beneficial to use trusted members of the community that you are studying as “gatekeepers”. They may be useful in helping to build rapport with community members, gaining trust, and helping to communicate the research to participants, and other stakeholders. 
  • You should consider the ethical implications of gaining consent from children and young people under the age of 16, or adults who have impaired decision making. This could be due to sudden illness or accident, progressive conditions such as dementia, or an intellectual or learning disability. Consulting with the appropriate individuals, such as parents or support workers, can help with safeguarding and the inclusion of people who lack capacity to consent to their participation.  
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