Examples of Risks in Social Science/Behavioral Research
Risks in Social Science/Behavioral Research may not be as obvious as those encountered in Bio/Medical Research, but they do exist.
Here are some examples of risks that might be encountered by subjects in social/behavioral research:
Loss of time. The time needed to participate should always be identified in the consent process. The estimate should be based on a pilot study of individuals not involved in creating the research activity. Anticipated participation time may be given as a range, but it is better to overestimate than underestimate the time required.
Recalling traumatic or distressing events can be a distressing activity and may cause some level of suffering for participants. A short study of such sensitive topics may be followed, for some participants, by an extended period of flashbacks, nightmares, reactivation of fears, or unhappy rumination. Asking individuals to participate in research activating such memories should never be undertaken lightly. Examples of such events might be those of being a victim of torture, rape, or other crime; suffering sexual or other harassment; recalling embarrassing moments; providing information about one's illnesses; providing information about a family member's illness or death; describing the hassles of living in poverty; describing conflicts with one's partner or spouse, etc.
When engaging in such research, it is good practice to provide the research participants with a list of community resources that can be helpful should counseling needs related to the above occur. Such resources should be those available at no or little cost to the individual, since it would be undesirable to have participants spend large amounts in counseling fees as a result of dealing with memories triggered by participation in someone's research.
As a result of participation in behavioral research, some participants may falsely (or correctly) come to identify themselves as having a disorder, disturbance or inferiority. As examples, a subject responding to a "loneliness" scale may conclude that he or she is very lonely; a subject responding to a "depression" scale may conclude that he or she is depressed. The researcher needs to be aware of the risk and design the research to minimize it. Being careful of the titles given to measuring scales, and providing lists of community resources (as above) may be helpful.
Members of minority or low-power groups are often aware that research projects have a tendency to conclude that their groups are deficient or undesirable and have no desire to participate in research which furthers such conclusions. For example, a low-income single mother might not wish to participate in research which may conclude that single parenting is detrimental to a child's school success or later romantic relationships. The best solution to this risk is to design the research so that it provides solutions to problems, rather than simply identifying a group as deficient. Failing this, subjects need to be honestly informed of the purpose of the research.
Research subjects should not be subjected, without their informed consent, to stimuli they might wish to avoid, such as pornography, alcohol and tobacco advertisements, graphic violence, etc.
Be aware of potential risks to people suffering allergies, phobias, or environmental sensitivities. Examples might be such things as the peanuts often included in candies; mold and dust of a research space; flickering lights triggering epileptic seizures; public speaking or group testing for people with agoraphobia; small laboratory cubicles for people with claustrophobia. Identify any pertinent aspects on the consent statement, and clearly request individuals who have a sensitivity to these stimuli to exclude themselves from participating in the research.
Boredom, mental fatigue, embarrassment at poor performance, or frustration are minor but common risks. If present, they should be identified in the consent process.
Researchers should avoid impairing the subjects' relationships with others (e.g., asking a dating couple to discuss their conflicts; or asking employees about their dissatisfaction with their supervisors and making such information available to their employer). Asking a subject about another person results in "3rd party" or "secondary" subjects who have not given consent for their participation.
Exercise-induced or repetition-exacerbated physical harm, such as carpal tunnel syndrome, stress fractures, asthma attacks, heart attacks may be risks for certain kinds of research.
Invasion of privacy asking about income, health habits, use of illegal substances, etc. may cause unnecessary discomfort to subjects. Refrain from such questions or provide a clear rationale to the IRB about their appropriateness for the proposed research.
Requesting too much demographic information may result in possible identification of research subjects especially when you have a relatively small subject sample. This is often a problem for undergraduate researchers.