Research Ethics in Psychology: Vulnerable Research Participants / Children



For the research of and with participants’ under the age of 16, even in case of the use of electronic records only, a risk evaluation has to be performed (British Psychological Society (BPS), 2010,  American Psychological Association (APA), 2010). Special attention require the recruitment and informed consent of participants, as well as adverse event management.

Recruitment and consent of participants

Drotar (2011) suggests documenting the research participants background (e.g., whether they are members of any minority groups) to ensure equality and diversity and to increase internal validity and generalizability of the data collection. Some research proposals do not describe the recruitment strategy in sufficient details. It is, sometimes, for example not clear whether the research participants are recruited by approval from school personnel, which could explain the vague insistence of getting parental consent as a possible scenario according to the BPS (2010) for cases with a low-risk assessment. However, the involvement of (young) child participants, and especially when combined with the topic of gender, may raise the risk of a study beyond minimal. In that context a research proposal should specify the proportionality (BPS, 2010) of incentivizing participants gathering of parental consent by analyzing what may constitute a suitable form and in the case of cash the appropriate amount that is granted to participants for what reasons (Huang, O’Connor, Ke, & Lee, 2016). Providing some form of reimbursement to adolescents for their research participation is a widespread practice (Borzekowski, Rickert, Ipp, & Fortenberry, 2003) and not necessarily unethical (Amin, 2012).

Adverse event management

A good research proposal should include measures for how it is ensured that participant information isn’t personally identifiable (BPS, 2010). The APA (2010) is stating that psychologists should make transparent any deception as early as possible, why a staggered setting of the investigation could be unpractical and representing a risk for keeping the research setting confidential. According to the BPS’s (2010) principle of “Psychologists value the dignity and worth of all persons equally,” the choice of type of language (e.g., using gender stereotypes) in any investigations, tests, or assessments should be reconsidered. There is the risk that human trait categorization, especially in the light of specific age, educational and cultural (Jerzy, 2016) background of the participants, could appear disrespectful and discriminatory. Finally, the value of a study should be well justified by explaining what the practical implication from the risky research setup (i.e., involving children) is and what the resulting practical knowledge will be (BPS, 2010, McDonald, & Cox, 2009).


To meet the different ethical aspects of research with children (Huang et al., 2016), sufficiently qualified personnel should be involved (APA, 2010) as well as the link between practitioners and researchers established (Nielsen, 2016).



American Psychological Association. (2010). Ethical principles of psychologists and codes of conduct. Retrieved from

Amin, S. (2012). Monetary Compensation of Research Subjects: The Shortfalls of Research Standards in Preserving Autonomy. Penn Bioethics Journal, 8(2), 21-24.

Borzekowski, D. G., Rickert, V. I., Ipp, L., & Fortenberry, J. D. (2003). At what price? The current state of subject payment in adolescent research. The Journal Of Adolescent Health: Official Publication Of The Society For Adolescent Medicine, 33(5), 378-384.

British Psychological Society. (2010). Code of human research ethics. Retrieved from

Drotar, D. (2011). Contemporary directions in research ethics in pediatric psychology: introduction to the special section. Journal Of Pediatric Psychology, 36(10), 1063-1070.

Huang, X., O’Connor, M., Ke, L., & Lee, S. (2016). Ethical and methodological issues in qualitative health research involving children. Nursing Ethics, 23(3), 339. doi:10.1177/0969733014564102

Jerzy Marian, B. (2016). Towards a comprehensive model of scientific research and professional practice in psychology. Current Issues In Personality Psychology, Vol 4, Iss 1, Pp 1-10 (2016), (1), 1. doi:10.5114/cipp.2016.58442

McDonald, M., & Cox, S. (2009). Moving Toward Evidence-Based Human Participant Protection. Journal Of Academic Ethics, 7(1/2), 1-16. doi:10.1007/s10805-009-9082-3

Nielsen, R. P. (2016). Action research as an ethics praxis method. Journal Of Business Ethics, 135(3), 419-428. doi:10.1007/s10551-014-2482-3

    • Thank you for your note! For me I though maybe it is possible to create summaries of the study subjects instantly, which can be published as posts before the end of the semester. That way there can be an immediate and motivating double benefit. Take care