The Informed Consent Process

Read the following for detailed information about Northern Arizona University’s Informed Consent Process.

Overview

For most research projects, researchers must obtain the informed consent of any human participant involved in research before involving that person in the research project. Properly informing prospective participants is a matter of professional research ethics in every discipline. 

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The researcher must ensure that the circumstances under which consent is sought will provide the participants (or their representative) with sufficient opportunity to consider whether or not to participate. The circumstances must also minimize the possibility of coercion or undue influence that might be experienced by the participants. 

In some cases, participants' circumstances may be inherently coercive, such as due to confinement in a mental hospital or in a jail, penitentiary, or correctional institution. Participants in any of these categories are not excluded from research; rather, the researcher must make special efforts to ensure that potential participants are given every opportunity to exercise free choices in consenting to participate in a research project. 

Crafting a Consent Document

The informed consent document is formatted as a letter and should be worded as such. Researchers directly address the audience, using "you" instead of "participants," and plainly explain WHO is doing WHAT, WHERE, and WHEN.  

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The consent document is not meant to be merely a legal record of the consent process, nor is it meant to be the only communication between researcher and prospective participant. On the contrary, the consent document should be one part of the total consent process.

Broadly, the informed consent document communicates to the prospective research participant:

  • the purpose, procedures, risks and benefits of the study
  • the participant's rights while participating in research
  • the freedom to decline to participate without undue influence or any prejudice or penalty.

For research involving more than minimal risk, the available alternative treatments or counseling must be explained. The individual will also be given the opportunity to obtain further information and answers to questions related to the study. The consent form should serve as a written summary of the exact information that was presented to the prospective participants before their agreement to participate in the study, complete with contact information of the researcher and the IRB office. As such, it will provide a useful reference for both the participant and the researcher.

Informed consent templates and Online Research

The IRB strongly suggests that you use the template consent forms available at Human Research Forms. Spanish versions are also available.

For research that involves the electronic collection of data, such as online surveys, researchers can use a modified version of the consent template in which they delete the signature lines at the end of the form. The first question of the online survey should then be: I have read and understood the consent information and agree to participate in this research. YES/NO

Waivers of Signed Consent

In some cases, such as research that involves participants of risky or illegal behavior or status, the signature on consent forms can be waived. Researchers must provide a justification for requesting a waiver of signed informed consent.  

Minimal risk

Oral history and ethnography research projects generally present minimal risk to participants.

Minimal risk is:

  • the degree of harm a person would normally expect to encounter in routine activities of daily life or in routine, non-invasive medical, dental, or psychological examinations of healthy persons
  • when there is no chance of the research causing participants to be stigmatized (disrespected), or to face criminal or civil liability (charges), or to sustain damage to their financial standing, employability, insurability, or reputation

Information maintenance

When hard copy photos or audio/video/computer data, tapes, or storage disks will not be destroyed or erased at the end of the research project, the Informed Consent Documents must advise the participant of that fact, because his/her identity will be associated with the information provided.

For additional information, contact Paula Garcia McAllister at 928-523-2895.

When informed consent is not required

Projects not reviewed by the Institutional Review Board (IRB) are similar to the following examples:

  • gathering or asking only opinions about political candidates or issues, without recording or revealing any details that could identify the person
  • gathering or asking only opinions regarding American-made vs. foreign made products, without recording or revealing any details that could identify the person
  • gathering or asking only opinions concerning environmental issues or policies, without recording or revealing any details that could identify the person
  • gathering or asking only opinions/preferences about the participant's favorite television show, preferred vacation spot, musical preference, etc., without recording or revealing any details that could identify the person

These examples above reveal nothing about a person's experiences, behaviors, and/or identity. Therefore, IRB review and the use of Informed Consent Documents are not required.

When informed consent is required

Every potential participant who is a physically and mentally able adult must provide free and willing consent (agreement) to participate in research prior to any activities that constitute research. The term "assent" (agreement) is used when referring to children, minors, or to adults with compromised abilities. In some cases, the IRB may grant waivers to the researchers to omit or alter some elements of informed consent.

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Adults

Written consent is required from people who are at least 18 years old, function normally in society, and who are able to read and understand an Informed Consent Document. The ideas of mental and physical normalcy focus on the ability of the participant to provide truly informed and voluntary consent. Variations from this norm may include disabilities, diseases, or other circumstances of the participant.

Children or minors

Arizona state law considers anyone 17 years of age or younger to be a minor. There are several requirements for obtaining informed consent to conduct research involving children through age 12, and minors, age 13-17. Special attention must be given to the child's age, his/her ability to understand what is asked of him/her, and his/her relationship to a parent or guardian. In all cases, the researcher must demonstrate respect for the rights of the participant within the proposed consent procedures that should be developmentally appropriate to the age and circumstances of the participant. 

Researchers conducting research involving children or minors should also seek parental consent except when a waiver is granted by the IRB.

Very young children

For children below school age (e.g., infants, toddlers, and preschoolers) the researcher should give explanations that match the level of understanding. In many instances, the children's nonresistant behavior may be interpreted as assent, but the researcher must use special care to discontinue the participation of children who appear to experience undue stress from the research procedures. A written copy of the proposed script for presenting an explanation and request for participation in the research must be submitted to the IRB as part of the procedure/protocol. 

Child's assent

In addition to written parent/guardian consent, an elementary school age child should provide agreement to participate. The explanation to the child should contain elements of consent expressed in a form the child can understand. A conversational question-and-answer setting is often necessary to achieve this goal. In addition, the child's assent should be positive, that is, not merely lacking dissent (refusal). If the child is old enough to provide a signature, investigators are required to obtain a signed assent form. A written copy of the proposed script for presenting an explanation and request for participation in the research must be submitted to the IRB as part of the procedure/protocol. 

Adolescent's (minor's) written assent

For people age 13-17, a written agreement is needed (in addition to written parent/guardian consent). People in this age group usually can read and comprehend a well-constructed assent form. However, the researcher should use supplementary verbal explanations wherever needed.  

Children who are wards of the state and adults with compromised abilities may participate in research only under very limited circumstances with the written consent of a guardian or court-appointed advocate for the duration of the research.

Special or vulnerable groups or situations

Special attention must be given to special or vulnerable groups or situations when obtaining informed consent. In all cases, the guiding principle is respect for the rights of the potential participant.

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Additional measures are required if some or all the participants could be vulnerable to coercion, manipulation, or other unreasonable influence. For example, the following people or situations require additional safeguards:

  • research being conducted with Native American people or groups. Additional review by the appropriate tribal entity may be required.
  • projects proposing to ask or observe participants concerning their opinions, behaviors, and/or experiences regarding the following high-risk, sensitive topic areas:
  • sexual behavior, AIDS or HIV, incest, rape, date rape, sexual molestation, or abuse
  • substance use and/or abuse of legal or illegal drugs
  • contraception, pregnancy, or abortion
  • children up through the age of 12, and minors from age 13 up through 17
  • any aspect of a participant's mental health. This includes people who are mentally challenged with acute or severe physical or mental illness, e.g., suicide, depression, and compulsive behaviors such as gambling, smoking, eating disorders or behaviors. Consent is required from all participants. Additional written consent may be required from a patient advocate (a state or county official who monitors the progress of some ill people).
  • religious orientation and views
  • regarding veterans and/or wartime experiences
  • prisoners—sensitivity to privacy and other individual concerns is required;participation will have no effect upon their parole or treatment
  • infants, fetuses, pregnant women, and human in vitro fertilization
  • the elderly (people who are 65 years of age and older)
  • people who are very sick, such as those with a life-threatening illness
  • people residing in institutions such as group homes, half-way houses, and nursing homes
  • people with economic disadvantages, such as those who are homeless and those receiving public assistance, food stamps, or other aid
  • people of minority ethnic or racial backgrounds

Although the regulations specifically mention only certain special categories of participants, the overall intent is clear. The researcher has special responsibilities whenever the potential participants of research have special features or circumstances that might affect their ability to give informed and voluntary consent to participate in research. Since there is no way to anticipate every situation, extreme care must be used to respect and safeguard the rights of potential participants in the process of obtaining informed consent.

When hard copy photos or audio/video/computer data, tapes, storage disks, etc. will not be destroyed or erased at the end of the research project, the Informed Consent Documents must advise the participant of that fact, because his/her identity will be associated with the information provided. 

Waivers: Altering or omitting informed consent

The IRB may agree to remove an informed consent requirement only after a case is presented by the principal investigator. Under certain circumstances, altering or omitting elements of written consent documents may be waived. The requests for a waiver must be fully justified by the researcher when submitting an application to the IRB.

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A waiver may be granted when participants are not at risk and there are protections for anonymity when:

  • the research involves no more than minimal risk to the participants and meets the requirements of Exempt from Periodic Continuing Review (IRB Reference Document)
  • the omission or alteration of standard informed consent procedures will not affect adversely the rights and welfare of the participants
  • the research could not be carried out practicably without the omission or alteration
  • the participants will be provided with additional pertinent information after participation

This process is recommended for those projects that are exempt from periodic continuing review, both to preserve anonymity and to eliminate the need for maintaining and storing informed consent forms for three years following completion of the project. The participant must also be given a clear and free choice to accept the invitation to participate or to refuse without prejudice or penalty. If participants are students, patients, or employees of an institution in which research is being conducted, they must be informed that nonparticipation or withdrawal from the study will not affect their grade, treatment, care, or employment status, etc.

A waiver may be granted for research in three situations:

Benefit and service programs

The research's purpose is demonstrating or evaluating:

  • federal, state, or local benefit or service programs that are not themselves research programs
  • procedures for obtaining benefits or services under these programs
  • possible changes in or alternatives to these programs or procedures
  • if the research could not be carried out practicably without the waiver

Biased results

A researcher desires to withhold from the participant some information about the project that, if known by the participant, would bias the results of the study. Ordinarily, the researcher will plan a debriefing session after completion of the participant's participation in order to provide the participant with the missing information, and give the participant the options of including his/her data in the study or having it destroyed. In no case should a researcher seek to withhold information about the research or the participant's role solely to reduce the chances of refusal to participate by potential participants.

Sole identity

The IRB determines that:

  • the only record linking the participant and the research would be the informed consent document and the principal risk would be the potential harm resulting from a breach of confidentiality
  • the research presents no more than minimal risk of harm to participants and involves no procedures for which written informed consent is normally required outside the research context

This type of waiver applies especially to anonymous interviews (including face-to-face and telephone interviews) in which the investigator's sole knowledge of the identity of the interviewee would come from the informed consent document. (Source: 45 CFR 46.117)

A waiver of informed consent procedures does not imply waiver of the researcher's responsibility to obtain consent from the participant. In all cases, the researcher must provide the participant with a statement of the research that includes all relevant elements of informed consent. When an Informed Consent Document is waived and it is practical, participants should be given a cover letter that outlines the purpose and procedures of the project, with a statement such as "completion of the survey and/or return of the questionnaire indicates consent to participate in the study.

Alternative procedures for oral consent

Obtaining assent from children, minors, or adults with compromised abilities

If the participant is a child or minor, a written assent form must be signed by those participants capable of reading and understanding one of the assent forms in Informed Consent Documents or a similar form approved by your department, institute, or other sponsor.

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The age, maturity, and psychological state of the participants must be taken into account by the principal investigator when creating an assent form and the verbal presentation to obtain oral assent from such participants. Before research begins, the IRB must approve copies of the assent form, the parent/guardian consent form, and the script of a verbal explanation that will be presented to potential participants who are children, minors, or adults with compromised abilities.

Obtaining oral consent from functioning adults

If oral consent is necessary due to an adult's limited literacy or language comprehension, the participant or his/her legal representative will be asked to sign a short form stating that the basic consent form elements have been orally presented. Both the short consent form and the oral presentation must be approved by the IRB. A witness must also be present for this presentation and must sign both the short form and a written summary of the oral presentation. The participant or his/her legal representative must be furnished with a copy of both signed documents. A written copy of the proposed script for presenting an explanation and making a request for participation in the research must be submitted to the IRB as part of the procedure/protocol.

Anonymous interviews or questionnaires

Many types of survey research use anonymous questionnaires returned by mail or placed in drop-box locations. A participant is anonymous only if his/her identity remains individually unknown to the researcher. Where the identity is known but held secure from being known by others, the researcher is maintaining the confidentiality of the identity. With anonymous questionnaires, the researcher may fulfill the requirements of informed consent by providing the participant with a cover letter or set of instructions that includes the following items, as applicable:

  • an explanation of the research project, its purpose, and the time period of participation
  • an offer to answer questions concerning the project and information on how to contact the researcher
  • a statement indicating anonymity
  • a statement that the return of the questionnaire affirms the participant's consent to participate. A statement of voluntary participation must be included

Advertising to recruit participants

Before use, a copy of any advertising for prospective participants must be reviewed and approved by the IRB. A statement of risks and benefits that apply to the participants must be included. Manipulative or coercive statements and overly generous compensation or gifts must be avoided. (In some cultures and situations, "volunteering for free" is not the custom. Appropriate compensation or gifts may be expected. Researchers are expected to honor reasonable traditions that involve compensation in return for information or other research data.)

Retaining and storing signed informed consent documents and other research materials

When hard copy photos or audio/video/computer data, tapes, storage disks, etc. will not be destroyed or erased at the end of the research project, the informed consent documents must advise the participant of that fact, because his/her identity will be associated with the information provided.

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Signed informed consent forms are legal documents, and the researcher has legal responsibilities in handling them. In compliance with federal regulations, consent documents must be retained for a period of three years following the completion of the research. They should be stored in a secure location that is accessible to the university or federal officials in case serious questions arise. Access to these documents should be limited to:

  • those persons who have a need to know their contents, ordinarily the principal investigator and key personnel
  • a representative of the IRB (usually the chair)
  • the Human Research Protections Administrator on behalf of the university
  • authorized federal officials

Informed consent documents become part of the IRB file of a project and are subject to federal audit. Therefore, the IRB will review carefully both the content of and the storage provisions for all consent forms. The IRB must have the following detailed information:

  • the exact location
  • the method of storage
  • the names and titles of individuals (other than university and federal officials) who have access to the consent documents

A principal investigator who leaves the university prior to the end of the three-year retention period for informed consent forms should notify the IRB of this fact, specifying the new location of the consent documents. If consent documents are maintained by a graduate student or research assistant, they must be turned over to the responsible faculty member after data collection is completed. A change of location within the university that results in a new storage place for consent forms should also be reported to the IRB.