In survey research, consent forms typically are used to gain the permission of a parent or guardian who has the legal authorization to give permission for someone in her or his charge to participate in a survey. However, in some studies an adult will be asked to sign a consent form about her or his own agreement to participate in a survey.
Consent forms are most commonly used in surveys of youth populations, regardless of survey mode. Federal regulations protecting human subjects (45 CFR 46), accompanying state or local regulations, and many institutional review boards (IRBs) hold that a youth cannot legally agree to complete a survey (provide consent for herself or himself) until he or she is 18 years of age. As a result, signed or written permission from a parent or legal guardian usually is required prior to the youth or child participating in a survey. This permission is obtained by providing a written permission form, called a "consent form," to parents and having a parent or guardian return it with his or her signature giving the child permission to participate in the survey. Consent forms document that youth have permission to participate in the survey and help ensure that parents or guardians have enough information about the survey to make a decision about whether the youth can participate.
Consent forms also can be required for surveys of adult populations; a key difference with adult populations is that the adult respondent is asked to sign the consent form documenting that she or he has enough information about the survey to make an informed decision to participate.
Under federal human subjects protection regulations (45 CFR 46.116(a)), consent forms usually must include the following elements (individual institutional review boards may require additional elements):
- An explanation of the purposes of the survey, the expected length of the survey, and a description of the procedures to be followed
- A description of any reasonably foreseeable risks or potential harm that could occur if the respondent participates in the survey
- A description of any benefits to the respondent or to others that may be expected from the survey or that may be provided directly by the researchers
- A statement describing the extent to which confidentiality of any answers or data identifying the respondent will be maintained by researchers
- Details about whom to contact for answers to questions about the survey and about respondents' rights, and information about whom to contact if participation in the survey results in any harm to the respondent, and
- A statement that participation is voluntary, refusal to participate will involve no penalty or loss of benefits to which the respondent is otherwise entitled, and a statement that the respondent may terminate participation at any time without any penalty
Although consent forms usually are required for surveys of youth populations, federal regulations and IRBs often provide some flexibility for surveys of adult populations. For adult populations, participation in surveys rarely puts respondents at more than the minimal risks of everyday life. Moreover, depending on the mode of a survey, documentation of consent may not [Page 133]be feasible and may harm surveys by significantly reducing response rates. Finally, some surveys of sensitive behavior rely on anonymity to increase the likelihood that respondents answer questions honestly; for these surveys, a signed consent form actually serves as the only link between a respondent and his or her answers, thus making anonymity impossible and providing a possible threat to confidentiality. As a result, IRBs often waive requirements of a consent form and a signature for surveys with adult populations and allow the informed consent process to occur informally as part of the survey itself. However, key elements of consent can be provided to respondents in a concise way at the beginning of a survey—in the introductory script in a telephone interview, in a cover letter for a self-administered survey, or on the introductory screen in a Web survey.