Deception occurs when participants are deliberately given false information about some aspect of the research. Limited disclosure occurs when participants are not given information about the real purpose or the nature of the research. The National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2023) Chapter 2.3 states;

“Research involving limited disclosure covers a spectrum, from simply not fully disclosing or describing the aims or methods of observational research in public contexts, all the way to actively concealing information and planning deception of participants. Examples along the spectrum include: observation in public spaces of everyday behaviour; covert observation, for example of the hand-washing behaviour of hospital employees; undisclosed role-playing by a researcher to investigate participants’ responses; telling participants the aim of the research is one thing when it is in fact quite different.”

Justifying the use of deception

An investigator proposing to use deception or limited disclosure should justify its use in their submission to the HREC/Review panels. Depending on the nature of the deception, the study will be reviewed under either Expedited or the Full HREC Review processes. Please address the following when preparing your submission:

  • You will need to justify the use of deception to the committee and explain why deception is necessary to achieve the goals of the study. Researchers may also provide prior evidence and data that such research methods and use of deception on the proposed subject population does not negatively affect subjects’ attitudes about the research.
  • In the consent section of the application, explain the process to debrief participants. Explain when participants will be debriefed, who will debrief them, and how they will be debriefed (online studies may require a different debriefing process than in-lab studies – for more information about the Debriefing Requirements and consent, see the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research (2023) Chapter 2.3
  • In the Risk Section, explain if use of deception is likely to cause the participant psychological discomfort (i.e., stress, loss of self-esteem, embarrassment) while the deception is taking place. Explain how this risk will be minimized during the experiment and after the experiment is complete (i.e. full debriefing and support contact details).
  • Provide a copy of the debriefing statement(s) that will be given to participants and if applicable, the script that will be used by the researchers to orally explain the study (see below for guidance regarding the debriefing).
Debriefing requirements and process

The debriefing is an essential part of the consent process and is mandatory when the research study involves deception. The debriefing provides participants with a full explanation of the hypothesis being tested, procedures to deceive participants and the reason(s) why it was necessary to deceive them. It should also include other relevant background information pertaining to the study.

After participants have been debriefed immediately following completion of the study, the HREC/Ethics Panels expect that participants will be given a debriefing statement to take with them. For online studies, the debriefing process should occur as soon as a participant has completed the research activity. As an added measure, it may be necessary to send an email out to all participants after the study is completed to ensure that all participants (those that completed and those that may have stopped mid-way) receive a debriefing form. The participant must read, signs or acknowledge the debriefing form to say they have read it. They should also be provided with an option to withdraw their data or indicate they are happy for the data to be used. There cannot be “passive re-consent;” if researchers do not get a definite response, then the researchers cannot use that participant’s data.

The form should not only include an explanation of the deception in the current study, but also a brief explanation about why deception must take place in social and behavioural research more generally.

The debriefing statement must be reviewed and approved by the HREC/ Ethics Panels.

The process to debrief participants must be explained in your ethics application. Your submission must indicate who will debrief participants. The HREC expects that this person is a member of the research team who has knowledge about the research and the deception.

Please refer to the debriefing statement template that you will need to include with your application if your study employs limited disclosure / deception or you do not explain some aspect of it (e.g. the objectives) in your plain language statement. If in doubt, it is always best to include a debriefing statement.

Name Purpose Format Link
Debrief template Use this template to provide information to participants about limited disclosure or deception in the research study. .docx Download
Alternatives to explicit consent and limited disclosure

In regard to which consent is the best fit for individual projects, the National Statement state (chapter 2.3):

“Depending upon the circumstances of an individual project it may be justifiable to employ an opt-out approach or a waiver of the requirement for consent, rather than seeking explicit consent. A single research project may involve discrete elements or participant groups where different recruitment approaches can be used. For example, a project may involve some elements or participant groups where explicit consent must be sought and other elements where an opt-out approach may be considered or where a waiver of the consent requirement may be applied.

While an opt-out approach makes it possible for people to make an informed choice about their participation, this choice can only be made if participants receive and read the information provided, and they understand that they are able to act on this information in order to decline to participate.”

Page last updated on 05/04/2024

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