It is recognised that deception (incomplete disclosure to the participants of the true nature of the research) is sometimes necessary in some research projects.

However, this type of research involves obtaining participants' consent to participate in the project in a manner that is not truly 'fully informed', and this can lead to increased risk to the participant, especially regarding psychological distress.

As stated in the British Psychological Society Code of Human Research Ethics:

If the reaction of participants when deception is revealed later in their participation is likely to lead to discomfort, anger or objections from the participants then the deception is inappropriate. If a proposed research study involves deception, it should be designed in such a way that it protects the dignity and autonomy of the participants.

Deception or covert collection of data should only take place where it is essential to achieve the research results required, where the research objective has strong scientific merit and where there is an appropriate risk management and harm alleviation strategy.

When planning research and seeking ethical approval, researchers should have the following in place and described in their ethical review application form (Word):

  • a clear justification for the use and degree of deception, detailing:
    • how the value of the research to the field outweighs the risks of using deception
    • why using deception is necessary in the specific project
    • how the deception to be used is the minimal amount possible.
  • a clear explicit set of procedures for how to minimise and alleviate any potential risk of participant disbenefit (e.g. stress, loss of self-esteem, embarrassment).
  • a participant information sheet that informs participants of any potential disbenefits they may encounter from participating, as much as possible without disclosing the deception.
  • a debrief stage that occurs as early as possible and provides the following:
    • a detailed explanation of the research
    • its proposed outcome
    • why it was necessary use deception
    • contact points for appropriate support services
    • a right for participants to withdraw themselves and all of their data from the study.