Although most research does not require debriefing, it is never wrong to debrief participants, particularly if participants are being asked to participate as part of an educational experience. Debriefing is required for research that involves deception or incomplete disclosure. Deception occurs when participants are deliberately given false information about some aspect of the research; incomplete disclosure occurs when participants are not given information about the real purpose or nature of the research.
These guidelines and sample debriefing statement are intended for researchers who need assistance in creating a Debriefing Statement for research involving human participants. If you have questions about your statement or any part of the IRB process, please feel free to contact the IRB Chair.
Debriefing generally has four elements/goals. These elements are described below with non-exhaustive lists of issues to consider that can be used in whole or in part, depending on the needs of the study and the researchers.
1. Probe for participants' suspicions
This element is most commonly done orally, not via the Debriefing Statement
- Ask the participants if they have any questions about the study
- Ask if they were suspicious about the procedures or purpose of the study
- Ask if they can guess about what the research study is about
- Ask for their feelings about and reactions to the study
- Ask if they had heard anything about the study from other participants
2. Explain considerately how and why deception was employed
- Respond appropriately to the participant’s answers in the conversation above (e.g., “You were on the right track. We couldn’t tell you about what we’re studying in advance, but I’d like to tell you more about what we’re studying now…”)
- Mention that sometimes when participants know the true purpose of an experiment, their answers can be affected in ways that can jeopardize the results of the study
- Emphasize that it was the not the gullibility of the participant but rather the skill of the experimenter that is responsible for the success of the deception
- Acknowledge the irony of deceiving participants in order to approach “the truth"
- Remind participants that deception is not meant to embarrass them and that it is only employed when absolutely necessary; there is nothing wrong with them if they believed the cover story
- Clarify the specific deception employed in the experiment and specify that assurances of confidentiality, information regarding compensation, and ability to withdraw without penalty, etc. are true
3. Make the actual purpose of the study clear
- Describe what is being studied and include relevant previous findings as appropriate
- Relate the research to something participants may have learned in class
- Explain anticipated or observed results so far
- Offer to provide them with the study results (but do create a process for actually doing so)
4. Ensure that participants leave with a positive feeling about research
- Assess the participants’ state of mind before they leave, they should feel no worse than they did before the study (if they do, be sure to refer them to Counseling Services and you should complete an Adverse Events Form)
- If the study involves sensitive topics, it may be appropriate to give participants an opportunity to withdraw their consent to participate now that they know about the deception
- Ask the participant not to reveal any information about the study to others
- Thank the participants and provide contact information for the head researcher so that the participants may contact them with future questions or concerns
Debriefing Statements should include at least:
- Thank you to participants for taking the time to participate in the study
- Explanation of what was being studied using lay terms and avoiding the use of jargon
- Explanation of how participants were deceived
- Explanation of why deception was necessary in order to carry out the research
- A statement of what to do if they have unaddressed problems with their treatment as a research participant
- If the study involves use of audio or videotaping an individual participant, give the participant an opportunity to withdraw his/her consent for use of the tapes and, potentially, withdraw from the study all together, after the true purpose of the study is revealed. The IRB suggests that participants be given at least 48 hours to make this decision and provide contact information for who participants should contact regarding their withdrawal from the study. This option must be given to participants even if they were video or audiotaped during a focus group or during an experiment involving other participants. If a participant decides to withdraw, the researcher must use video editing tools to make an individual who withdraws unidentifiable. If tools are not available, the researcher cannot use the video or audiotape
Under most circumstances, the IRB expects that participants will be debriefed at the conclusion of their participation, before they leave the experimental session. If researchers believe this is not an appropriate procedure for their study, they must clearly justify this decision in their IRB Research Protocol Form and describe when and how participants will be debriefed.
There are some rare instances in which debriefing may cause more harm than the deception itself. For example, if a participant is selected for participation based upon certain characteristics (e.g., being voted physically unattractive by peers), it might not be appropriate to describe that aspect of the selection. Researchers who believe that debriefing will cause more harm than the deception must clearly justify the decision not to debrief in their IRB Research Protocol Form. The IRB will make final determinations about whether and when debriefing is necessary.