1) Incomplete Information Letter or Debriefing

The templates on the website specify the items that must be mentioned. In proposals we often miss: (a) personal email address/phone number of the responsible researcher (mentioning the student or a general study email address is not enough); (b) the risks and potential discomfort; (c) a specification of all personal data that are collected, and how they are treated.

2) Information or Debriefing Letter too complicated

Your participants are not scientists (yet), so be sure to avoid complex words and phrasing and simplify your goals and rationale to a level that they can understand. If the real aim or methods are too complex, then at least provide a text that makes them feel that they have spent their time on something meaningful.

3) Missing Debriefing Letter

It is a common mistake that a debriefing letter is only required for designs involving deception. Instead, every study should provide a ‘Thank you’, and a full explanation of what was done and why. For student participants, this is a crucial learning experience; towards others, it is just a matter of decency.

4) The Information Letter biases the participant

Never assume that your participants are naive: from the very start, they will form a rational opinion or make a guess about the goals of the study and what is expected of them. Whether they are correct or wrong does not matter. The Advertisement, Information Letter, instruction and any tests themselves will all influence their interpretation of the study, and their behavior. This is to some degree unavoidable, but the researcher should make every attempt possible to minimize the influence. So be very mindful about exactly what information you provide to the participants. Often, it is best to specify as little as possible. The Information Letter should provide just enough information about what will happen, to allow people to make an informed decision to participate or not.

5) Language use and spelling errors

ERCPN expects texts to be of academic quality, and there are limits to the number of spelling and grammatical errors we can endure. Sometimes the intelligibility of the proposal simply suffers too much from such errors. For external communication towards participants or organizations or institutes outside of UM, the standards are even higher because your text should represent professional UM standards.

6) Referral to third parties in case of psychological problems

It is not uncommon that manipulations potentially have a negative (emotional) aftereffect on participants, or trigger certain behaviours, intended or not by the researcher. If this is possible, then professional help must be offered, but it is important that the responsible researcher is always informed. Even if both a professional organisation and the address of the responsible researcher are given in the Debriefing, there is a chance that a participant will only contact the professional organisation, and then the researcher would remain uninformed of the unwanted aftereffect. For this reason, in principle only the name of the responsible researcher, or someone very close, should be provided as contact in case of psychological problems. They can then refer to professional support, if needed.

7) Unclarity of sensitive procedures

It is a common mistake to devote much attention to the theoretical rationale, and less to potentially ethically sensitive issues. While writing, assume that the ERCPN will interpret any unclear or ambiguous information in the most negative way possible. This is meant to keep the participants and you ‘on the safe side’. Reassure us that anything you do is safe and harmless, and if it is potentially harming explain how to mitigate the risks.

8) Rewards that require personal data

You may give a reward that requires personal data like an email address. For example, to inform participants if they won a prize in a raffle. In that case participation cannot be fully anonymous. Explain in the Information Letter that you will keep the personal information only temporarily, and will delete it afterwards.

9) Raffles

If the reward is participation in a raffle, then specify how the raffle will be executed and the chance of winning in both the Information Letter, and in the proposal. If the chance of winning is undetermined (e.g. dependent on the number of participants who show up), then provide at least a plausible range of chances.

10) Unclarity of participant recruitment

The issue is that participation must be completely voluntary. People in an organization may feel pressured to participate if the organization participates (“what will my boss think if I decline?”). Also, prisoners and some types of patients may be in a situation where they fear that declining may have negative consequences. It is the investigator’s responsibility to take away such fears in order to keep participation truly voluntary. Convince the ERCPN that you took appropriate measures to accomplish this.

  • 1) Incomplete Information Letter or Debriefing

  • 2) Information or Debriefing Letter too complicated

  • 3) Missing Debriefing Letter

  • 4) The Information Letter biases the participant

  • 5) Language use and spelling errors

  • 6) Referral to third parties in case of psychological problems

  • 7) Unclarity of sensitive procedures

  • 8) Rewards that require personal data

  • 9) Raffles

  • 10) Unclarity of participant recruitment