Signed Consent Forms in Criminological Research: Protection for Researchers and Ethics Committees but a Threat to Research Participants?
Roberts, Lynne, Indermaur, David, Psychiatry, Psychology and Law
The use of signed consent forms is mandated by most human research ethics committees and social science ethics codes. In this article we argue that the use of signed consent forms in criminological research provides protection for researchers and ethics committees by providing documentation that informed consent has been obtained, but poses a threat to potential research participants, especially offenders. Consent forms constitute a record of participation in a research project, providing the potential for research documentation to be subpoenaed. This is a threat to the offender's future wellbeing in research where offenders are asked to report on illegal activities. Further, there is a general reluctance among offenders to sign consent forms, creating a barrier to participating in research and potentially affecting response rates and representativeness of samples. Concerns over confidentiality may result in limited disclosure and self-protecting responses. We recommend the development of alternative methods of obtaining informed consent that provide greater protection for research participants.
Conducting criminological research is fraught with ethical and legal considerations. Institutional ethics committees impose requirements on researchers to ensure that research does not breach nationally accepted ethical or legal standards. However, these requirements have the potential to limit the type of research that can be conducted and the way it is conducted. In essence, a focus on protection may lead to poor quality research. This may be an acceptable consequence if the human rights of research participants were significantly enhanced or protected. However, as we will argue in this article, there is no evidence of this. Indeed it is more likely that the opposite is the case.
There is a documented history of concern over this issue among criminologists within Australia over the past decade. In 1995 a forum was conducted at the University of Melbourne on ethical and legal issues when conducting research into illegal behaviours (Fitzgerald & Daroesman, 1995). The forum focused on limits to confidentiality, the legal and ethical consequences of research into illegal activities, the need for regulatory and legislative frameworks and guidelines, and balancing the public interest in research versus prosecuting criminal behaviour (Larkins, 1995).
In 1997, Dixon argued that research with offenders "is coming under increasing threat from institutional ethics committees which have raised legal and ethical objections to proposed projects" (Dixon, 1997, p. 211). Specific issues Dixon identified included the inability of researchers to legally protect confidentiality, the potential criminal liability of researchers, the inability of research participants to understand consent forms, and research participants' negative reaction to references to legal liability. Dixon argued that the use of written consent forms is not always appropriate in criminological research, and recommended greater representation of disciplines on ethics committees to counteract the dominance of the medical and scientific models.
These issues have not been resolved and continue to surface. Indicative of this is the current research project being led by the New South Wales Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research documenting the relationship between ethics committees and criminological research. In this article, we examine one aspect of possible contention between ethics committees and researchers: the requirement for use of signed consent forms in criminological research. The examination of this issue is situated within the parameters of current principles and guidelines for ethical research. The differing perspectives of ethics committees, researchers and research participants are outlined, legal issues identified and alternatives to signed consent forms suggested.
Principles of Ethical Research Underlying Informed Consent
The guiding authority for the conduct of ethical research in Australia is the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). …