In keeping with conventions regarding the use of the prefix meta-, as in meta-cognition or meta-linguistic, the theme of this special issue is best captured by the term mta-research, or research that explicates the research process. More specifically, this special issue focuses on meta-research on a variety of sensitive topics. Interpersonal violence (e.g., intimate partner violence, child maltreatment, sexual assault), intrapersonal violence (e.g., suicidal behavior), and risky behavior (e.g., substance use and abuse, various types of sexual behavior) can all be considered sensitive topics, because they typically involve behaviors that are almost always highly personal and are sometimes illegal. Moreover, conducting research on these topics could conceivably pose threat of harm to either participants, investigators, or both (Lee, 1993). As could be anticipated, the majority of the articles here focus on interpersonal violence and its victims; however, several of these studies have assessed other sensitive topics such as substance use/abuse and suicidal behavior.
Simply recalling such experiences and reporting them may be emotionally upsetting, but, in addition, this information is potentially damaging, embarrassing, stigmatizing, or incriminating to the participant should it become public knowledge. Assurances of anonymity and confidentiality, which are essential to the integrity of all investigations, become even more critical to the validity of research on sensitive topics. Researching sensitive topics raises questions in two related domains: (1) What is the impact on the participant of being asked to think about, and disclose, such information (possibly for the first time)? and (2) What are the implications of methodology on sensitive topic research in terms of participation rates, disclosure rates, and validity of the information provided? These questions are central to the studies contained in this issue.
Institutional review boards (IRBs) have considerable say in whether and how research is conducted. Their main goal is to ensure participants' safety, which is often accomplished through an evaluation of likely risks and benefits associated with research participation. Consequently, every IRB application requires the researcher to elaborate his or her perceptions of the risks and benefits to participants and, further, to describe the efforts and procedures that will be employed to minimize such risks and ameliorate any resulting damage that might ensue.
Unlike medical research, the bulk of psychological research is not physically invasive. Instead, psychologists, whose research tools often include questionnaires and interviews, are typically asked to consider what emotional risks might arise from participation. With regard to research on sensitive topics, researchers have commonly speculated that one potential risk might be that participants will become uncomfortable or emotionally upset when asked to recall and disclose past trauma or if they are asked to admit to engaging in risky or deviant behavior. Remedies that have been employed by researchers to minimize these hypothetical emotional risks have included providing access to the primary researcher or a clinical graduate student at the conclusion of the study or offering to provide referrals to local counseling services if participants become distressed in the course of the study.
Although the potential for emotional risk makes intuitive sense (especially when the research involves disclosure of rape trauma, sexual abuse, child maltreatment, suicidal behavior, or intimate partner aggression), it is not clear that deleterious emotional consequences do, in fact, routinely occur as a result of research participation. In fact, relatively few empirical data are available that speak directly to this question. At the theoretical level, arguments could be reasonably made for both positive and negative consequences. On one hand, some trauma survivors develop amnesia for traumatic experiences that are potentially too painful or upsetting to process (Briere & Conte, 1993). …