Ethics information for Psychology

Your research must adhere to the British Psychological Society Code of Research Ethics. It is your responsibility to read the code carefully BEFORE you begin designing your research project.


Recruiting vulnerable participants

Who counts as a ‘vulnerable’ participant?

A vulnerable participant is any individual who may have limited understanding or capacity to give informed consent (e.g. children, the elderly mentally infirm, adults with learning disabilities) or be in a position where consent giving is likely to be influenced by the institutional setting (e.g. prisoners or residents of an institution).

Section 4 of the BPS code of research ethics covers the conditions for valid consent and makes suggestions about the appropriate procedures.

The principle of proportionality (procedures are proportional to the nature of the participation and the risks involved) is invoked. For student research an analysis of the risks to the participant, researcher and the institution are required.

Who can give consent?

The consent of participants in research, whatever their age or competence, should always be sought by appropriate means.

For children under 16 years of age and for other persons where capacity to consent may be impaired, the additional consent of parents or those with legal responsibility for the individual should also normally be sought.

Consent process for children in school or nursery

If children are seen in school or nursery, this will mean seeking the consent of the school for the research to take place), the consent of the parents and the consent of the children themselves. In some cases, where the research activity is something that is very similar to normal curriculum activities (i.e. literacy or numeracy tasks) the head teacher may feel able to give consent and include the research as a school activity. If this is the case the head teacher should inform the parents that the research is taking place in the school and do this by letter, giving them the option of withdrawing their child from the activity. The researcher might benefit from providing the head teacher with a draft of the key information.

Where the research activity is not something that normally takes place in the classroom, parental consent should be sought. To decide in which category your data collection belongs, you should put yourself in the place of a parent. What sense you would make of an account of the data collection activity if your child came home and told you about it? If it would sound unusual or puzzling, discuss this with your supervisor. The British Educational Research Association (BERA) currently takes the view that head teachers are not formally ‘in loco parentis’ where it comes to research, so be prepared to seek parental consent.

The BPS guidelines state:

“where research procedures are judged by a senior member of the school staff to fall within the range of usual curriculum or other institutional activities, AND where there are no significant risks to the participant, consent from the participant and the granting of approval and access from a senior member of the school staff can be considered sufficient.” BPS Code of Human Research Ethics. (2011) page 17.

Recruitment and consent process: all participants

Piloting the information sheet

The BPS code requires that the participant information sheet be piloted with a naive person with a literacy level at the lower end of the range expected in the planned sample. In practice this means that you need to identify an appropriate person for piloting early in the development of your project. Piloting should take place after material has been approved by your supervisor.

Documenting consent

Verbal consent should be recorded where it is not appropriate to gain written consent and this should include a statement that information about the research has been given to the participant and understood. How this works in practice with children is something you need to discuss with your supervisor.

NB: Documentary evidence of the consent of a school or company is required by the university and must be submitted to the Department Research Ethics Officer. If you do not submit this documentary evidence that the organisation has agreed to your carrying out the research, your research ethics approval will be invalid and your work may not be assessed.

Consent forms: copies for participants

Provide parents or adult participants with TWO copies of consent forms – one to be kept by the participant.

Storage of consent documents

These identify participants and should be kept securely. Discuss how and where to do this with your supervisor.