Ethics and Equity
Existing processes for securing ethics consent are probably set up for in-person research (including securing informed consent in-person). It is possible to secure informed consent remotely, however. In the main, doing so successfully involves abiding by the same underlying principles, including ensuring participants properly understand the project; their role in it; and how any information they provide, or stories they share, will be used, why whom, and for what purpose. It also involves abiding by the same principle that consent should not only be secured, but recorded, and this record safely and securely stored at least for the lifetime of the project. As with all research involving other human beings, researchers need to ensure they do no harm, and bear in mind the well-being of their participants, both within any planned research activity (eg an interview or a workshop), and afterwards. This might be both physical and mental.
Getting informed consent
When working remotely it is not always possible to obtain written informed consent from research participants: that is, they may not be able to print, sign, scan, and email a consent form.
As an alternative to the traditional method of having participants manually sign a physical consent sheet, informed consent can be secured verbally using other mediums:
Meet online via a video chat programme such as Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or GoogleMeet. Here, you can sit down with participants, either one on one or as a group, to discuss what will be required of them while participating in the project. Participants can ask questions, which should help you feel secure that their consent is informed. Where appropriate, you can share documents as a file, or via screen-sharing – for instance, information sheets. This can be done in one or more languages, depending on your project participants’ needs (and you could also ensure you have a translator on the call).
Obtaining a participant’s consent can also be done through video call programmes in which the official consent form is read out to the participant and:
- They type “I consent” in the chat function, and a screenshot is taken that includes both yourself, the participant, and the note of consent.
- The video chat is recorded, with yourself also visible on screen, of the participant’s verbal consent.
Informed consent can also be secured over the phone, by reading out and recording consent. In this instance, obviously there is no visual evidence confirming your own, or the participants’ identity. This might have some advantages for participant safety and anonymity. It is worth bearing in mind whether any harm might come to your participants if their faces could be identified, were anyone to gain access to your saved records of consent
Messaging software such as WhatsApp can also be used to send the consent form for the participant to read and they can either digitally sign the form on their phone and send it back or type out their consent. You could take a screen shot of their typed “I consent”, attached to their name (or pseudonym) in Whatsapp as a record of their informed consent.
Be sure to keep a record of:
- The script/statement used to explain the project and to secure informed consent;
- The date and time of consent;
- The screenshot/audio/video recording of the verbal/typed consent.
Make sure this is stored securely, in line with your existing data-storage policy.