Author: Jennifer L. Harrison, Ph.D., LP, Solutions IRB Reviewer and Board Member
Date: November 20, 2023


Learn eCORE frequently blogs on topics related to protecting the rights and welfare of human research participants.  This guest blog, from Solutions IRB, addresses consent and privacy considerations for virtual focus groups, which have become more common since the COVID pandemic.   Thanks to the Solutions IRB team for letting us share this with our readers. 


Considerations for Design of Virtual Focus Groups 

A focus group is a qualitative research method that uses a moderated format to gather descriptive data from a small group of participants specifically selected to address a common topic. Focus groups are useful for such things as understanding group culture or needs, getting feedback on products or programs, or gaining a sense of the range of opinions on a topic. The group dynamic in focus group settings can yield richer data than is possible from individual interviews.    

Because focus group members participate at the same time, there are some unique ethical issues associated with this approach.  In addition, while focus groups have traditionally been conducted in person, since the COVID pandemic, there has been an increase in the use of virtual meeting methods to conduct focus groups, which adds additional ethical issues. 

Given that focus groups can increase the risk for participants, researchers should carefully consider whether this is an appropriate research method for the information that will be obtained from them. One such risk is that the researcher cannot ensure confidentiality of the information discussed within the group. This is primarily because once participants leave the group and the study, they are on their own and they can share any information they so choose with anyone. For this reason, researchers must inform participants of this risk and try to mitigate this by asking them to respect others’ privacy by keeping information discussed within the group confidential. 

Focus Group Consent 

Obtaining informed consent to participate in a virtual focus group should occur on an individualized basis so that the individual can take the appropriate time to review the information, ask any questions they may have, and ultimately provide consent after making an informed decision. Consent cannot be obtained in a group setting as this does not provide each individual with the appropriate attention needed to ensure they individually understand the information that has been presented to them, they are less likely to ask questions in a group setting, they are essentially put “on the spot” to provide their answer in front of others, they may be rushed to make a decision, and they are more likely to engage in groupthink – meaning, a desire for agreement or harmony in a group setting results in individuals disregarding their own judgment and critical thinking from pressure to conform. Such a group setting can actually be considered coercive in nature for obtaining consent for these aforementioned reasons. To obtain consent, it is possible to ask participants to click a box in an online form where they agree to a statement, such as, “By clicking this box, I agree that I have read and understand the above information and I agree to participate in the study.” 

Recording a Focus Group 

Recording a focus group, whether audio and/or video, can present even more risks to participants depending on the data that will be collected. For example, if a researcher is interested in understanding substance use behaviors and patterns in more detail, information obtained will in essence be an identifiable, recorded admission of guilt that could be used against them and potentially have negative consequences for the participant (e.g., loss of employment, criminal charges from law enforcement) – as many substances remain illegal in the US. For these reasons, careful consideration should be afforded to the design process to determine if recording can be avoided in order to better protect participants. If the information collected is sensitive in nature, such as the above example, researchers should consider obtaining a certificate of confidentiality from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). If a recording can be avoided and the researcher can instead take notes, this is preferable given the risks of the potential for a breach of confidentiality of the information. In addition, it is also possible to request a waiver of documentation of consent if there is a possibility of harm to a participant due to a breach of confidentiality – so that participants’ names are not identified on consent forms in order to further protect their identity. 

Seeking consent to record a focus group also needs to occur on an individualized basis and during the informed consent process. Participants should be clearly informed in the informed consent process that they will be recorded, via the specific method (i.e., audio and/or video recording), and if the participant chooses to decline to be recorded – whether or not they can still participate in the study. Just prior to notating consent for participation in the study at the bottom of the form, participants should be asked to provide their consent for recording – and this is the only occasion that this information needs to be covered – in other words, permission to record should not be asked again at the commencement of the focus group. Doing so can actually be considered coercive – because if a participant declines to be recorded and is asked again at the start of the focus group – they may be pressured to say yes when they have already declined. 



About the Author: Jennifer L. Harrison, Ph.D., LP earned her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis in Forensics from the California School of Professional Psychology (CSPP) at Alliant International University. She is a licensed psychologist in Minnesota and Missouri, has an active APIT from the PsyPact Commission, and specializes in clinical and forensic psychology. Most of her training and career thus far has been within public service settings. She currently works as a forensic psychologist for the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Direct Care and Treatment – Forensic Services. As a forensic examiner, she specializes in forensic evaluations to include competency to stand trial, criminal responsibility, civil commitment, general and sexual violence risk assessment, and repeat sexual offender evaluations, as well as providing expert testimony to the court system. Dr. Harrison is also a consultant with specialty in the delivery and implementation of an evidence-based cognitive therapy known as Michael’s Game, a card game for the treatment of delusional ideas. She serves as a primary reviewer for Solutions IRB with expertise in mental health, forensic psychology, clinical, forensic, and public service settings, and underserved populations. She serves as adjunct faculty for the Clinical Psychology Ph.D. Program at CSPP at Alliant International University where she teaches a doctoral-level advanced statistical course in meta-analysis. She has extensive training and experience with meta-analytic research methods and actively publishes research in peer-reviewed journals. She is an invited Ad-Hoc Reviewer for multiple forensically-related peer-reviewed journals and she also currently serves as the Public Service Division Chair for the Minnesota Psychological Association. 


About Solutions IRBSolutions IRB is a private, commercial, AAHRPP accredited Institutional Review Board. They are a team of experienced reviewers readily supporting researchers with IRB services, including the review of exempt, expedited, full board, minimal and greater than minimal risk studies. Solutions IRB is committed to protecting research participants, monitoring approved protocols, and providing outstanding customer service to our researchers. They provide quality and timely IRB review for many facets of studies, including social-behavioral, vulnerable populations, international, clinical trials, medical device, non-significant risk, and non-investigational new drug studies. Feel free to schedule a time here to discuss your research and what services they can provide for you!  

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