How to write the perfect consent form for research

George Denison
|October 24, 2023

Consent forms play a vital role in protecting both researchers and participants.

In fact, they’re an essential aspect of any study. They make sure everyone involved understands the purpose of the research, their rights, and what’ll be done with the data you collect. Consent forms also protect participants by flagging any content that might cause offence or distress, ensuring they’re informed and have the option to not take part.

Read on to discover why consent forms for research matter, what to include in one, and some handy tips and tricks for ensuring yours covers every base.

Why research consent forms matter

A thoughtful, thorough research consent form can really add to the participant’s experience – while keeping you compliant, and them safe. Here’s how.

The only way is ethics

Consent forms are a key part of ethical research. They provide a clear and concise understanding of the study's objectives, methods, and potential risks.

Asking for informed consent shows respect to your participants. It ensures they're voluntarily taking part in the study without feeling coerced or misled.

Consent forms are mandatory

All academic institutions have an ethics board (also known as the institutional review board in the US). This group must approve any research being done by researchers who are connected to the university.

Consent forms are an important part of this process. The ethics board requires them to ensure that participants understand what they’re agreeing to and that their rights are being protected.

Compliance is key

Research consent forms also serve as a legal safeguard for both researchers and participants. They outline the rights and responsibilities of each party, which helps you stay on the right side of data protection rules like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

They can also keep you out of court. They allow you to uphold participants’ rights, and your own rights, if a dispute occurs and avoid potential legal complications.

Trust matters

A well-crafted research consent form establishes trust between you and your participants.

By being transparent about the study's purpose and procedures, people will feel more comfortable engaging in your research.

Creating the perfect consent form for research

Your consent form will no doubt be unique, depending on the nature of your research and the specifics of your study.

But here are eight key components you won’t want to miss out.

1. A study description and purpose

Kick off your consent form by outlining your study's purpose and objectives. Briefly explain why the study’s being conducted.

This section should be clear, concise, and easy to understand, as it sets the stage for the rest of the form.

2. What’s expected

Describe the tasks participants will be asked to complete and any equipment they’ll need, along with an overview of the time commitment required.

With this information, participants can make an informed decision as to whether they want to take part or not.

3. Voluntary participation

Make it clear that taking part in your study is entirely voluntary. Explain that the participants can withdraw from the research at any time without penalty or negative consequences.

This a legal requirement – but it also helps you promote trust and allow participants to feel in control of their involvement.

4. Risks and rewards

Address any potential risks or discomforts that participants may experience during the study. Be open about any physical, psychological, or social risks – even if they’re small.

Don’t forget to shout about the benefits, too! If taking your study means gaining insights, learning new skills, or contributing to scientific knowledge that’ll make the world a better place, highlight it here.

5. The privacy bit

This one’s crucial. Explain what data will be collected during your study – including any sensitive info, like racial or ethnic origin, religious or political beliefs, or health status – and how this data will be used and protected.

You’ll also want to mention how the data will be stored, and for how long, as well as how participants can withdraw their consent and data.

Assure participants that their personal information will be kept confidential, and outline the measures you have in place to protect the anonymity of their responses.

If you plan on making their anonymised data available to other researchers online at some point, be really clear about this, too.

6. Compensation and incentives

Give participants full details of the compensation they’ll receive for their time. Be open about the amount, form of payment, and any conditions required to receive it.

This information helps participants understand the value of their efforts.

7. Your contact info

Offer participants a point of contact for questions, concerns, or feedback related to the study.

8. A consent statement and tick box

End your research consent form with a clear statement of consent. This should explicitly state that the participant has read and understood the information provided and agrees to participate in the study.

Then, add a button or check box participants must click to record that they’ve given their consent. This should be timestamped and, if you’re using the Prolific platform, stored alongside the participant’s Prolific ID. If a participant selects ‘Does Not Consent’, ask them to return their submission on Prolific by clicking ‘Stop Without Completing’. They shouldn’t be penalised for this.

Our top tips for writing consent forms

So, you know why you need a consent form for research and how to write a comprehensive one.

Now, make it even better with these tips and tricks.

Use clear and accessible language

Make sure your consent form is written in clear and accessible language that participants can easily understand. Steer clear of technical jargon and keep acronyms to a minimum.

Keep it simple

Try to keep your form concise and focused. Reams of text and check boxes can be overwhelming and may discourage potential participants. Rather than getting the participant to consent to several different things, try and stick to one check box that confirms whether they do or don’t consent to the study.  

Be transparent

Be open and honest about the study's purpose, methods, and potential risks. If participants feel informed and at ease when taking your study, you're more likely to get better responses from them.  

Test and revise

Before distributing your research consent form, have a couple of people you trust review it for clarity and comprehensibility. Use their feedback to revise it before you put it in front of participants.

Create consent forms with confidence by using our downloadable template

To make getting consent simple as possible, we’ve created a comprehensive consent form template that you can use for your research.

This template includes all the key fields required to ensure you and your participants are protected. Download the template now.