Becoming an ethical researcher
Becoming an ethical researcher

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

4.1 Concepts to support researchers and participants

There are some key concepts, which have entered into our language and in some cases into legal frameworks, that guide the way society behaves. The terms permission, consent and assent capture how we should behave towards one another to show our respect to act freely. As researchers, we need to embrace and enact these concepts as part of our research activities, with additional responsibilities (drawn originally from biomedical research) about gaining informed consent from potential participants to be confident they understand what is being asked of them before agreeing to participate.

Activity 6 Distinguishing permission from consent from assent

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes for Part A and 15 minutes for Part B

Part A

Consider the following definitions:


If you give someone approval to do something, you are giving them permission. Think of the permission slip your parents sign to let you go on a field trip––they are approving your going on the trip. Permission has the same Latin root word as permit.

(, 2020a)

If you give your consent to something, you give someone permission to do it. [For example] Pollard finally gave his consent to the search. If you consent to something, you agree to do it or to allow it to be done. [For example] The patient must consent to the surgery.

(Collins Dictionary, 2020)


Consent can only be given 'if he(sic) agrees by choice, and has the freedom and capacity to make that choice'. ... Whether a complainant had the capacity (i.e. the age and understanding) to make a choice’ - as worded as the statutory definition of consent in the UK (Section 74 of the rape and sexual offences legislation].

(Crown Prosecution Service, 2017)

Informed consent

Consent [for example] by a patient to undergo a medical or surgical treatment or to participate in an experiment after the patient understands the risks involved.

(, 2020b)


Assent is the expression of approval or agreement [such as] ‘a loud murmur of assent’ or ‘he nodded assent’.

(, 2020)

This can be given by anyone, and is usually what is sought from those unable legally to give consent to offer a sign that they are happy to proceed with the request of them. For those under the legal age of consent (technically minors) who are considered unable to readily comprehend the requests of them, a legal guardian would need to be asked for consent on their behalf.

Consider Case study 2.1 again in relation to the following questions:

Think about:

  • Who would the researchers have approach for permission?
  • Who would the researchers have approached for consent?
  • Who would the researchers have approached for assent?
  • How would the researchers have evidenced: permission, informed consent, and assent?
To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Part B

What is involved in gaining informed consent?

The gatekeepers to this setting were likely to include the Ministry of Education, the regional education office and the headteacher of the school. If the school was funded or sponsored in some way, the leader of the partner organisation would also need to have been contacted. Consent would then need to be gained from individual class teachers and from the parents/carers/guardians of the children who would be observed. The children themselves should also have been asked to give their assent. How such consent was gained would need to take local recommendations into account, in order not to cause offence or disrespect. Whilst the gatekeepers are likely to have provided written, formal permissions, those in the school may only have offered verbal consent.

The notion of informed consent comes from biomedicine, but the principles are used much more widely in research with people. Watch the following short video and, as you do so, replace in your mind ‘doctor’ with ‘researcher’ and ‘patient’ with ‘research participant’.

The video entitled ‘Informed Consent: in a patient’s shoes’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] is 2 minutes 49 seconds in duration and won the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh skills video competition in 2017 (make sure to open this link in a new tab/window so you can easily return to this page).

Note down the strategies recommended at the end of the video as valuable principles to consider when a researcher is informing potential research participants about the research in which they would like them to participate.

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to University-level study, we offer two introductory routes to our qualifications. You could either choose to start with an Access module, or a module which allows you to count your previous learning towards an Open University qualification. Read our guide on Where to take your learning next for more information.

Not ready for formal University study? Then browse over 1000 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus371