Social Psychology Network

Maintained by Scott Plous, Wesleyan University

Tips on Informed Consent

   One of the most important ethical rules governing research on humans is that participants must give their informed consent before taking part in a study. This web page summarizes the essential elements of informed consent according to:

In addition, investigators who have web-based studies with links posted in Social Psychology Network should adhere to additional requirements for web-based studies.

United States Government Guidelines

According to the U.S. Office for Human Research Protections (OHRP), the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) requires that certain information be provided to research subjects before they participate in a study, including:

  • A statement that the study involves research, an explanation of the purposes of the research and the expected duration of the subject's participation, a description of the procedures to be followed, and identification of any procedures which are experimental

  • A description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or discomforts to the subject

  • A description of any benefits to the subject or to others which may reasonably be expected from the research

  • A disclosure of appropriate alternative procedures or courses of treatment, if any, that might be advantageous to the subject

  • A statement describing the extent, if any, to which confidentiality of records identifying the subject will be maintained

  • For research involving more than minimal risk, an explanation as to whether there are any treatments or compensation if injury occurs and, if so, what they consist of, or where further information may be obtained (Note: A risk is considered "minimal" when the probability and magnitude of harm or discomfort anticipated in the proposed research are not greater, in and of themselves, than those ordinarily encountered in daily life or during the performance of routine physical or psychological examinations or tests)

  • An explanation of whom to contact for answers to pertinent questions about the research and research subjects' rights, and whom to contact in the event of a research-related injury to the subject

  • A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled, and the subject may discontinue participation at any time without penalty or loss of benefits to which the subject is otherwise entitled

Note: It is essential that consent forms be written in plain language that research subjects can understand. In addition, the consent form should not contain any exculpatory language. That is, subjects should not be asked to waive (or appear to waive) any of their legal rights, nor should they be asked to release the investigator, sponsor, or institution (or its agents) from liability for negligence.

American Psychological Association Guidelines

According to Sections 3.10, 8.02, and 8.04 of the American Psychological Association's Ethical Principles of Psychologists and Code of Conduct, there are several essential elements of inform consent. These elements include telling participants clearly about:

  1. the purpose of the research, expected duration, and procedures;

  2. their right to decline to participate and to withdraw from the research once participation has begun;

  3. the foreseeable consequences of declining or withdrawing;

  4. reasonably foreseeable factors that may be expected to influence their willingness to participate such as potential risks, discomfort, or adverse effects;

  5. any prospective research benefits;

  6. limits of confidentiality;

  7. incentives for participation; and

  8. whom to contact for questions about the research and research participants' rights.

Informed consent also provides an opportunity for prospective participants to ask questions and receive answers.

In addition, the following guidelines apply to special populations:

  • When psychologists conduct research with clients/patients, students, or subordinates as participants, psychologists take steps to protect the prospective participants from adverse consequences of declining or withdrawing from participation.

  • When research participation is a course requirement or an opportunity for extra credit, the prospective participant is given the choice of equitable alternative activities.

  • For persons who are legally incapable of giving informed consent, psychologists nevertheless (1) provide an appropriate explanation, (2) seek the individual's assent, (3) consider such persons' preferences and best interests, and (4) obtain appropriate permission from a legally authorized person, if such substitute consent is permitted or required by law.

Additional SPN Guidelines for Web-Based Studies

In the case of web-based studies that have a link in Social Psychology Network, informed consent can be "documented" by requiring participants to click on a link or image that (1) indicates acceptance of the consent form, and (2) advances participants to an online study web page that is otherwise inaccesible to visitors. The consent form should also clearly identify the institutional review board that approved the study (e.g., the Wesleyan University Institutional Review Board), state the name and email address of the principal investigator (or faculty supervisor if the study is a student project), and include information on who participants can contact if they wish to bring a complaint or get further information (e.g., the name and telephone number of a departmental chairperson, Institutional Review Board, or Ethics Committee).

In addition, studies linked in Social Psychology Network should not exceed minimal risk (i.e., the level of risk found in daily life) or involve deception, and consent forms should inform participants that responses transmitted over the World Wide Web may not be secure (unless the study is using a secure server with https rather than http). In all cases, informed consent should be obtained before prospective participants are asked to download any software or otherwise continue with the study.

To see a consent form that can be used as a template for web-based studies, see Sample Consent Form.

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