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Ethics and Research Governance

Guidance - Health Sciences and Health and Society

Informed consent is an ethical requirement for most research and must be considered and implemented throughout the research lifecycle, from planning to publication. Gaining consent must include making provision for sharing data and take into account any immediate or future uses of data.

In the past, researchers have focused primarily on gaining informed consent to enable data collection but researchers should also inform participants about how research data will be stored, preserved and used in the long-term, and how confidentiality, where promised, will be maintained.  Contrary to what some researchers or research participants believe, even sensitive materials can be shared ethically. At a minimum consent forms should not preclude data sharing, such as promising to destroy data unnecessarily.
To ensure that consent is informed, consent must be freely given with sufficient information provided on all aspects of participation and data use. There must be active communication between the parties. Consent must never be inferred from a non-response to a communication such as a letter.


Consent procedures must be tailored for the specific research context, methods and sample, the nature of the data (personal, sensitive, level of detail), the format of the data (surveys, written, recordings,) and the planned data uses and handling.  This will influence the type of consent and consent process used.  More detailed requirements and examples of these are offered in the sections on gaining written or oral consent, and consent forms.


Whether informed consent is obtained in writing through a detailed consent form, by means of an informative statement, or verbally, depends on the nature of the research, the kind of data gathered, the data format and how the data will be used.
As with many other issues in research ethics, there is debate about the best format for gaining informed consent - written or oral.  We recommend a pragmatic approach.

  • For detailed interviews or research where personal, sensitive or confidential data are gathered, the use of written consent forms is recommended to assure compliance with the Data Protection Act and with ethical requirements. Written consent documentation typically includes an information sheet and consent form signed by the participant.
  • For surveys or informal interviews, where no personal data are gathered or personal identifiers are removed from the data, obtaining written consent may not be required. At a minimum an information sheet should be provided to participants detailing the nature and scope of the study, the identity of the researcher(s) and what will happen to the data collected (including any data sharing).
  • If data are collected verbally through audio or video recordings, verbal consent agreements can be recorded together with the data.
  • For audio-visual data where the identity of people may be disclosed from the data, it may be important that informed consent is obtained to use the data unaltered for research purposes, sharing and preservation. Voice alteration or image blurring are usually labour and cost intensive and may decrease the research potential of data.
    Written consent should be gained wherever possible to ensure that information is being collected and provided in a consistent and uniform way. It may also serve to protect both researchers and participants should any form of dispute arise.


Discussing and obtaining consent for participation in research, use of information gathered for analyses, publications and outputs, and sharing data beyond the research can be a one-off occurrence or an ongoing process. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages.
One-off consent is simple, practical, avoids repeated requests to participants, and meets the formal requirements of most Research Ethics Committees.

Consent is gained early in the research process and covers all aspects of participation and data use.  For research where no confidential or sensitive information is gathered (e.g. surveys), or where data collection is a one-off event, this is usually sufficient and most practical.  Criticism of this method is that it places too much emphasis on 'ticking boxes'. It can also be difficult to gain consent in one go in exploratory research or where not all data uses, research outputs and even methods are known in advance.

Process consent is considered throughout the research process and assures active informed consent from participants. This is generally recommended, such as in ESRC's Research Ethics Framework and is especially important in a research design which involves more than one point of contact with a respondent.

Consent for participation in research, for data use and for data sharing can be considered at different stages of the research, giving participants a clearer view of what participating in the research involves and what the data to be shared consist of.


Typically, written consent documentation includes an information sheet and a consent form signed by the participant. This division allows the background information to be as detailed as necessary, while keeping the signature form short and concise.

  • An information sheet should cover the following topics:
  • purpose of the research
  • what is involved in participating
  • benefits and risks
    • terms for withdrawal:
      oparticipants have a right to withdraw at any time without prejudice and without providing a reason
    • thought should be given to what will happen to existing, already provided, data in the event of withdrawal
  • usage of the data:
    • during research
    • dissemination
    • storage, archiving, sharing and re-use of data
  • strategies for assuring ethical use of the data:
    • procedures for maintaining confidentiality
    • anonymising data where necessary, especially in relation to data archiving
  • details of the research:
    • funding source
    • sponsoring institution
    • name of project
    • contact details for researchers
    • how to file a complaint

We do not provide a general template because information sheets are project specific, but provide an example from an ESRC research project and our own example of background information that can be given to participants to explain what archiving their data means.  Feel free to tailor these to your own needs while remembering to ensure you use appropriate language or images according to the specific targeted social group or age group.

The consent form should be written in plain language free from jargon. It should allow the participant to clearly respond to each of these points:

  • the participant has read and understood information about the project
  • the participant has been given the opportunity to ask questions
  • the participant voluntarily agrees to participate in the project
  • the participant understands that he or she can withdraw at any time without giving reasons and without penalty
  • procedures regarding confidentiality are explained (use of names, pseudonyms, anonymisation of data, etc.)
  • separate terms of consent for interviews, audio, video or other forms of data collection
  • use of the data in research, publications, sharing and archiving are explained
  • signatures and dates of signing for the participant and the researcher
  • The participant should be given a copy of the form and the researcher should retain the signed original.

This site contains useful information on consent, confidentiality and  ethics:

A helpful introduction to informed consent, including sample forms:

Article: 'A question of method. The ethics of managing conflicts of  interest'