Ethics FAQ

This section contains helpful responses to ethical enquiries on research and practice issues from the Society’s Policy Team.

This section contains helpful responses to ethical enquiries on research and practice issues from the Society's Policy Team.

If you are unable to find the guidance you seek from these responses, the Code of Ethics and Conduct or the supplementary guidance available from the Society, please submit a query.

Please note that the Society cannot give legal advice or provide practical support to members who have been complained about. For that reason, the Society strongly recommends that members consider taking out professional indemnity insurance. 

Research queries

Ethics review


Question:
If I wanted to do a small piece of research looking at the general public's perceptions of risk (about drug taking, offending and outdoor activities), how can I do it independently? I would like to do some research but it won't be anything to do with the university and hypothetically, would involve asking people on the street to volunteer to take part. The aim would be to have people volunteer through the provision of informed consent. Obviously, I would not like to proceed with research unless it has been reviewed by an Ethics Committee. I have the latest code of ethics and conduct but cannot find information about what to do when there is no obvious ethics committee. It is critical to adhere to the guidelines as I am a professional.

Answer: We would strongly recommend that you submit the research proposal for consideration under your university's institutional ethics procedure.

There are several reasons why we recommend you to do so:

First, as a protection for the participants, so that your research protocol can be properly reviewed and best advice given as to any modifications to cover eventualities/risks not previously anticipated.

Second, as a protection for yourself. The specifics of this case put you at risk of being in a situation where the fact that confidentiality can never be absolute is activated as the research sets out to canvas ideas/options about potentially illegal activities (drug taking, offending behaviour). This leaves you in a tricky dilemma if participants disclose actual engagement in illegal activity; you may have a legal duty to pass that information on, and if so how does this impact then on informed consent aspects related to confidentiality and anonymity of participants' disclosures? The duty of care might override any confidentiality clause in consent. It is crucial that a risk management strategy is in place and has been reviewed by a competent body such as an institutional ethics committee. Personal liability insurance may or may not be in place (it perhaps should be), but if it is and there is a claim against you for negligence, if there has not been ethical review, the insurers would have a case for refusing to cover a claim.

Third, as a protection for the institution. Even if the study is done independently, the press are more than happy to link lecturers' personal behaviour with their professional posts and name the institutions. It is not hard to envisage a situation where this proposed study might be reported in such a way as to bring the institution into disrepute.

The Society's Code of Ethics and Conduct also provides guidance on the general ethical principles that should be borne in mind.

Informed consent


Question: I am planning some research involving volunteer participants. How do I go about obtaining consent and what form should this take?

Answer: Researchers should ensure that every person from whom data is gathered for the purposes of research consents freely to the process on the basis of adequate information. They should be able, during the data gathering phase, to freely withdraw or modify their consent and to ask for the destruction of all or part of the data that they have contributed.

The way in which consent is sought from people to participate in or otherwise contribute data for research should be appropriate to the research topic and design, and to the ultimate outputs and uses of the analyses. It should recognise in particular the wide variety of data types, collection methods, and the range of people's possible responses and sensitivities. The principle of proportionality should apply, such that the procedures for consent are proportional to the nature of participation and the risks involved.

For example, for data from existing datasets where consent was properly gained in the initial collection and this consent covers the uses of data proposed, no further consent will normally be needed. For anonymised-at-source, non-sensitive data, consent may appropriately be minimal or may be considered to have been given by the act of participation. Nevertheless, the risks involved in some anonymised-at-source research, for example, web-based research on sensitive topics such as sexual behaviours, will require carefully prepared prior information and clear consent processes.

When research involves the collection of identity capturing data on sensitive material, using video or audio recording, or other methodologies where an individual may be identifiable, it is important to consider additional informed consent procedures. These procedures need to be related to both the nature of the data collected and the ultimate use of the data. Separate informed consent agreements for data collection and the dissemination of the study's results may be required.

A prior assessment of potential risks should inform the preparation of the information to be given to potential participants and the procedures for seeking consent. The assessment should be used to determine the appropriate form of consent and the nature of any risk management required. When in exceptional circumstances harm, unusual discomfort, or other negative consequences for the individual's future life might occur, the investigator must inform the participants clearly of these additional risks prior to consent. For all research where risks are present, secure liability insurance should be in place to adequately cover the levels of possible harm identified in the risk analysis.

Giving potential participants sufficient information about the research in an understandable form requires careful drafting of the information sheet. It is recommended that at least one pilot test of the draft documents be carried out with a naive person having a literacy level at the lower end of the range expected in the planned research sample.

In exceptional circumstances the aims of the research may be compromised by giving full information prior to data collection. In such cases, it should be made clear that this is the case in the information sheet and the means by which the withheld information will be given at the conclusion of data collection should be specified. The information withheld and the delay in disclosing the withheld information should be kept to an absolute minimum.

Refer to Section 1.3 of the Code of Ethics and Conduct.


Confidentiality

Question: Does confidentiality really apply in case of teenage research participants? That is, could I  withhold  information from a  parent the contents of the discussions held between his fourteen year old daughter and myself?

Answer: Our guidelines for conducting research with human participants are currently undergoing full review. However, in the meantime, the Society's Code of Ethics and Conduct provides guidance on the general ethical principles that should be borne in mind. There are also guidelines on the General Medical Council website that may find the guidance of use to you.

The sections on making decisions and principles of confidentiality are particularly straightforward and helpful.

We would also recommend that your research proposal is submitted for consideration by the University's Research Ethics Committee.

Question: I am a trainee clinical psychologist and am completing my doctoral thesis this year. As part of the project I plan to recruit a control group of University students. This control group will be asked to complete a number of questionnaires including the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale and a short evaluation of eating disorders. I had initially planned for the questionnaire responses to be confidential but I am concerned that I may receive questionnaires from control participants which score highly for anxiety, depression and eating disorder. I am aware that I need to balance the need for confidentiality with duty of care to the individual. I could indicate on the information sheet that if the person reveals scores that would indicate I have a concern about their well being that I would contact them but this would be at the expense of confidentiality. I wonder if you would be able to offer some advice?

Answer: The Code of Ethics and Conduct is very clear on instances when confidentiality may be breached. Section 1.2 v-ix is most helpful.

We would suggest that you use an appropriate coding system for the questionnaires so that the participants are only identifiable by yourself; and that you are clear about this at the outset. The possibility of follow-up for any concerns over wellbeing could also then be linked to this.


Practice queries

Informed consent: individuals lacking capacity

Question: Is it possible to conduct research with participants who lack the capacity to give informed consent?

Answer: In the specific case of persons lacking consent, willing and fully informed participation to give informed consent should be sought; and proceeding without consent should only occur if the research activity is considered to be of direct benefit to that person. Further consideration and guidance on this matter is provided in the guidelines on Conducting research with people not having the capacity to consent to their participation (Dec 2008).

Data/record retention

Question: How long are researchers required to keep participant data?

Answer: In relation to data retention: the Good Practice Guidelines for the conduct of psychological research within the NHS outlines within its Data Storage Section; If the research is to be published, most scientific journals require original data (including videos and transcripts) to be kept for 5 years. If it is not to be published then the data should be kept for 1 year, but this can lead to difficulties if publication is subsequently required as original data cannot be checked or examined if necessary (p. 11 on Data Storage).

The Society's Generic Professional Practice Guidelines state that: 'Psychologists should make, keep and disclose information in records only in accordance with national policy and legislation, the policies and procedures of organisations they are employed by/working in collaboration with, and the Society's Code of Ethics and Conduct' (p. 12 Access to records and records keeping).

Although this advice refers to record keeping it would also seem wise to find out if your employers have any guidelines on data storage that you should adhere to. If you are employed by a University, it should have an appointed Data Protection Officer who is able to provide specific guidance in this regard.

You should ensure that these data are stored securely, that access is strictly controlled, and that anonymisation and encryption are used as appropriate to protect personal data. You should also make sure that the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998 are complied with.

Question: How long should assessment reports be retained?

Answer: In accordance with the DPA - such reports should be kept only for as long as is necessary for the purpose for which the report is being processed.

In relation to data retention: the Good Practice Guidelines for the Conduct of Psychological research within the NHS outlines within its Data Storage section; If the research is to be published, most scientific journals require original data ( including videos and transcripts) to be kept for 5 years. If it is not to be published, then the data should be kept for 1 year, but this can lead to difficulties if publication is subsequently required, as original data cannot be checked or examined if necessary (p. 11 on Data Storage).

The Society's Generic Professional Practice Guidelines state that: 'Psychologists should make, keep and disclose information in records only in accordance with national policy and legislation, the policies and procedures of organisations they are employed by/working in collaboration with, and the Society's Code of Ethics and Conduct' (p. 12 Access to records and record keeping).

You would be best advised to also seek clarification from the Information Commissioner and their indemnity insurer as appropriate.

 
Question: Is it acceptable to retain data/records/files on my personal computer or in my office at home?

Answer: You would be best advised to contact the Information Commissioner to determine if a licence is needed to hold this information - especially if you are self-employed/independent practitioner. You should also make sure that the requirements of the Data Protection Act 1998 are complied with.

Disclosure of information in legal cases

Question:  I have been asked to disclose information from my notes to help in a legal case. What information is it permissible to disclose to solicitors, the police and the courts?

Answer:

Solicitors – Most commonly, the initial request for information is received from a solicitor acting on behalf of either the client or the other side of the case. Solicitors have no power to compel the disclosure of confidential information.

When a request for information is received from a solicitor, you will need to consider whether your client has consented to the release of the information and whether that consent is informed. Often a consent form will be sent by the solicitor. However, we would usually suggest that, even if you have received a consent form, you should ensure that your client is aware of exactly what is going to be disclosed and check that they consent to that information being released. Clients may not be aware of the exact nature or range of information contained within their notes. You should also keep a written note of your discussion with the client about their consent, and you may want your own detailed written consent form signed by the client.

If you believe that the information should not be disclosed because its disclosure would cause psychological damage to your client, or because it may be misinterpreted by those without specialist training, it may be worth contacting your client's solicitors to explain your concerns to them. If an application is later made for a court order compelling production of the information, they may then be in a position to argue against it.

Police – Enquiries from the police may be made because your client is the victim of a crime or because your client is a suspect. Where your client is a victim, the usual requirements for client consent apply. Where your client is a suspect, you should be cautious about releasing information. A request for information from the police does not override your duty of confidentiality to your client.

We suggest that you first consider whether this is an exceptional situation in which there is a serious concern or an ongoing risk to the safety of your client or others in which disclosure of the information is allowed under Section 1.2 (vi) of the Code of Ethics and Conduct. If that is not the case, you may be able to approach your client for consent. But it may be wise to check with the police before doing so, as informing the client of police inquiries may prejudice an investigation. If you cannot approach your client for consent, or if consent is not forthcoming, you should only release the information if the police are able to provide a warrant compelling you to do so.

Some other statutory agencies have powers to compel the production of information. They should be able to provide you with evidence of this. If you receive a notice compelling you to disclose information, you should consider obtaining advice from a solicitor, your employer's legal department or your indemnity insurer's legal helpline. The BPS Policy Advice Team may be able to help you with ethical aspects of the request, but cannot give legal advice.

Courts – The courts have wide-ranging powers to compel the production of evidence, including documents, notes of sessions and any tape or video recordings.

A court order overrides the duty of client confidentiality, and failure to comply with an order may be a contempt of court. The judge in the case will decide whether disclosure is necessary. If you are given a chance when the application for an order is being considered, or if you are asked to disclose confidential information in the witness box, you should mention your duty of confidentiality and inform the judge of any concerns you have about the information being disclosed. However, once the judge has made the order, you are required to comply with it, whether or not you believe that it is correct.

(Extracted from Ethics Column No. 2, The Psychologist, August 2005)

 

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