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How can we ensure that participants are truly informed when they consent to take part in a remote data collection activity?
How can we ensure that participants are truly informed when they consent to take part in a remote data collection activity?
James B. Tidwell avatar
Written by James B. Tidwell
Updated over a week ago

Obtaining informed consent is as important for remote data collection as it is for other forms of data collection. However, given the limitations of the amount of time that a phone survey can last and difficulties understanding long and complex text read over the phone, a less-detailed and simplified informed process may be considered.

The informed consent process, however, should be considered as an iterative and on-going process. It may not be necessary to obtain consent afresh at every stage of the data collection (and this may not be applicable in, for example, a one-off phone survey). However, to aid understanding, you should provide participants with information throughout the data collection process and ensure that they are aware consent can be withdrawn at each stage of the process. This can be particularly important where new information becomes available that might impact the risks or benefits that the data collection poses.

Prior to obtaining consent over the phone, it is necessary to confirm that you are speaking to the right respondent. You should have a protocol of what to do if the person who answers the phone is not the agreed respondent. For example, if someone else answers the phone:

  • Ask the person responding if they know the target respondent and if this person is reachable through this number, or if they have the correct number for this person.

  • If they do not know the target respondent, apologise for the inconvenience and end the call.

Informed consent should follow a standardised participant information sheet and, at a minimum, describe the following (adapted from this resource):

  • Who you (the data collector) are and which organisation you are working for (restate even if mentioned when starting call).

  • Why you are collecting this data - i.e. what the overall purpose of the data collection is.

  • Why the respondent has been chosen - for example, explain if they have been randomly selected, or if they have been selected because they belong to a particular group you are targeting (e.g. a person over the age of 60).

  • That participation is voluntary and that choosing not to participate will not have any consequences for the respondent or their family. Clearly outline what respondents need to do in order to decline or withdraw their participation (e.g. tell them they can say something along the lines of “I do not want to continue the conversation”). Remind respondents again before seeking consent that they are free to decline and, at different stages of the data collection, remind them that they are free to withdraw their consent. Also state that once a respondent’s data has been anonymised and combined it cannot then be excluded.

  • The approximate number of participants you will collect data from.

  • What the respondent will be expected to do if they agree to participate, including the expected duration of their participation.

  • Any reasonably foreseeable risks or inconveniences to the respondent related to participating in the data collection.

  • Any benefits a respondent may receive by participating.

  • How the data collected will be used and who will have access to this data.

  • How the respondents confidentiality and privacy will be ensured.

  • Who the respondent should contact if they have any questions and provide the relevant contact details.

  • Who the respondent should contact if they have a problem or a complaint regarding the data collection and the relevant contact details.

These things should be described in simple terms in a language that the participant is fluent and comfortable in. As mentioned above, it is important to inform the respondent of how long the survey or interview will take. This will reduce incidences where the respondent has to cut the interview short due to competing priorities in their lives or phone batteries running low.

Once these things are explained, verbal consent should be requested and noted explicitly by the data collector. Verbal consent should be obtained by getting the participant to say ‘Yes, I agree’ to the following statements:

  • I confirm that I have understood the information for the study named “insert study name here”. I have had the opportunity to consider the information, ask questions and have these answers satisfactory? Do you agree to participate?

  • I understand that my consent is voluntary and that I am free to withdraw this consent, without giving any reason and without any consequence to me, up until the point at which data is anonymised or combined and therefore cannot be excluded. Do you agree?

  • I understand that overall data from the project may be shared publicly but that I will not be identifiable from this information (if applicable). Do you agree?

When collecting data over a phone it is important to remember that it is possible that the participant will be overheard by others in their own family, especially when physical distancing is being enforced and people are being encouraged to stay home. Therefore, we would recommend that mobile data collection be sensitive to this and avoid topics that might be associated with stigma or which could put the participant at risk if others knew the information. Examples of such topics include mental health, domestic violence, sanitation behaviours and menstrual hygiene management. If you will be asking sensitive questions, consider checking first whether the person is alone and if it is OK to ask them questions in relation to your study (Yes/No responses). This can help avoid unintended harm and give the person an easy way to decline to participate if they feel at risk. If absolutely necessary, questions of this nature can be answered with simple multiple-choice responses (e.g. a scale from 0-10). Interviewers should also check with respondents that they are the only ones able to hear the phone call and also provide options to skip any questions should they perceive any signs of the respondent being uncomfortable.

If participants refuse to take part you may want to ask the reason for refusal so that this can be addressed directly or fed back and used to help improve future processes. This must be done very carefully - the data collector must stress that this is optional and in no means a way to push participation. If asking for this information, remember that a closed question (Yes/No response) might be easier for them to answer if the topic is sensitive and others might be listening at the other end. If the respondent refuses to give a reason, thank them for their time, record the refusal and the reason, reassure the respondent that there will be no consequences to their refusal and then end the interview.

Want to learn more about ethics, consent, protection and risk for COVID-19 monitoring and evaluation?

Editors notes:

Authors: James B. Tidwell
Review: Anne Harmer, Anna Skeels, Dr, Dónal O'Mathúna, Gautham Krishnaraj PhD(c)
Last update: 10.06.2020

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