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Challenges in Obtaining Informed Consent: The Case of Forest Resources in Zigiwan



Authoring Institution Association for Practical and Professional Ethics (APPE)
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Contributor(s) Brian Schrag
Volume 7
Year 2006
Publisher Association for Practical and Professional Ethics
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  • Chip   Colwell-Chanthaphonh

    Posted 3 years and 4 months ago

    Informed voluntary consent is not really about having a signature on a piece of paper, but rather ensuring that research participants are given all the facts necessary to make a sound decision and that their choice to participate is not coerced. Assuming Dr. Clark discloses all the facts about her work—its aims, methods, and applications—then she is well on her way to obtaining informed consent. That said, informed consent in many ways only marks the beginning of the relationship between a participant and a researcher. Dr. Clark will have many other responsibilities on this project, including taking measures to protect the confidentiality of her sources, particularly in a politically tense place such as Zigiwan. The practical problem of having a signed form could be solved in various ways, such as having the form faxed to the United States while the original is destroyed, or perhaps using a coded system that only Dr. Clark and a trusted assistant could decode. However, even if such steps were taken, with this kind of research in a rural setting, it seems likely that community members would still know who participated and be able to identify individual collaborators. The larger problem then concerns whether or not the risks presented to the individual participant outweighs the potential benefits of the research.

    Suppose that there is little risk to the research participants in Zigiwan. Intuitively, we might initially think there would be little problem for Dr. Clark to proceed. However, if Dr. Gordon is to be believed, then the implication is that these individuals could potentially face extreme violence—torture or even death. In other words, while the risk in terms of chance is generally small, particularly since the country is now stable, should violence erupt again, the research participants might suffer terribly. With the possibility of extreme brutality, the bar must be raised for the project’s potential benefits. However, the benefits of the project do indeed seem compelling: the heath and diversity of the country’s wooded areas. Since in this case the individuals bear the greatest risks, they should be the ones to decide if the benefits make it worth their effort to participate. Assuming Dr. Clark offers full disclosure and protects her informants so far as possible, the choice should be left to individual community members. Already individuals are reluctant to sign informed consent forms, indicating that they are already cautious and well aware of what kind of behavior creates risk.

    What if the risks were great and harm almost certain? Would it still be ethical for Dr. Clark to proceed, even if she could find willing participants? An analogy: imagine a researcher needs to try out a new surgical procedure to cure acid reflux disease. The researcher is close to certain that nine out of the ten needed patients will die as a direct result from the experimental method. Yet, when the researcher posts the advertisement for the procedure, ten sane people come forward and volunteer. Even though these individuals are fully informed and willingly volunteer, would it still be ethical for the researcher to carry out the experiment?

    The answer will depend in large part how one views individual autonomy. One response may be that so long as the individual willingly agrees and is fully informed, then the project should move forward. In opposite terms, another response is that while individual autonomy should be respected, this does not mean that scholars may do whatever they please so long as their participants agree to participate. The latter position, to which I am sympathetic, recognizes that even as autonomy is a core value, researchers have responsibilities to enact other values, such as benevolence, the propensity to do good. It is far from charitable to cause certain harm even if some limited good may result. In this case, curing acid reflux is hardly worth the life of nine human beings. Similarly, with the Zigiwan case study, if the risks were great and harm almost certain for the participants, then I do not think it would be ethical for Dr. Clark to continue with the study. While a healthy environment is important for a country, it does not mean that achieving this goal should be pursued at any cost.

  • Anonymous  Participant

    Posted 3 years and 4 months ago

    Social science researchers have an obligation to protect research participants. While most researchers hold this as a central tenet of their research, it is by no means a straightforward process. This case study highlights two aspects of conducting ethical research—obtaining informed voluntary consent and evaluating the costs and benefits of research. Both are challenging endeavors considering how social science research navigates a sea of multiple interests and meanings relating to both informed consent and cost/benefit analyses.

    Dr. Clark, like many researchers, is affiliated with multiple institutions (e.g. IFSN, the university) and conducts research within many different cultural contexts. While her university’s review board (IRB) may grant alternate informed consent considering her concerns, IFSN’s consent process may have little to do with ethics. Indeed, IFSN’s primary concern may involve issues of litigation rather than ethical considerations.

    What if IFSN agrees to follow the decision of Dr. Clark’s university IRB to grant an alternate form of consent (e.g. verbal)? How should Dr. Clark go about drafting this considering appropriate forms vary depending on different contexts? For example, it may be more appropriate to use verbal consent when literacy rates among participants are very low.

    It also is important to evaluate the positionality (i.e. cultural viewpoint) of all people involved with the study.  For example, how does Dr. Clark’s positionality (e.g. status as a Ph.D. researcher, woman, etc.) affect how she evaluates and interprets what constitutes informed consent? How might this be different from how Zigiwaians conceptualize informed consent? How might positionality (e.g. social class, race, etc.) among Zigiwaians affect interpretations of informed consent?  For example, does an “educated” city dweller conceptualize consent different from a “non-educated” rural dweller? How should Dr. Clark approach informed consent considering these differences?

    Whether or not Dr. Clark proceeds with signed consent or some other form of consent, she also will need to conduct a cost/benefit analysis. This includes evaluating the potential costs and benefits of her research on individual community members as well as the community as a whole. Unfortunately, this is not a clear-cut process. For example, how should Dr. Clark weigh costs and benefits between individuals and the community as a whole? Is it ethical potentially to compromise the safety of a few community members (e.g. by having signed consent forms and asking about illicit timber harvesting activities) for the potential benefit of the community as a whole? 

    Complicating the cost/benefit analysis further, there are many variables that cannot be clearly determined. For example, after conducting a cost/benefit analysis Dr. Clark may decide to move ahead with her research because she thinks its benefits outweigh the costs. In doing so, she is confident her research can strengthen IFSN's agro-forestry program. She cannot, however, guarantee that the results and recommendations derived from her research will be implemented or even considered. Should Dr. Clark take this into account when evaluating the costs and benefits of conducting the research considering these factors are out of her control?

    While this case study highlights ethical considerations of informed consent in an international context, it illustrates ethical concerns that affect all social science research. Informed consent and cost/benefit analyses are central tenets of the research process, and we need to take them seriously. While there is no straightforward process of determining the best course of action, we can remain committed to protecting the rights of research participants by anticipating and evaluating as many factors as our faculties allow. Only then can we be assured that we are doing everything in our power to meet the needs of the very people social scientists are committed to helping.



    Cooper, David E. 2004. Ethics for Professionals in a Multicultural World. New Jersey: Pearson–Prentice Hall.

    Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. 2003. Ethics and the Profession of Anthropology. New York: Altamira Press.

    Sieber, Joan E. 1992. Planning Ethically Responsible Research: A Guide for Students and Internal Review Boards. Applied Social Research Methods Series 31: 1-161.

    Schiltz, Michael E. 1992. “Ethics and Standards in Institutional Research,” Journal of New Directions for Institutional Research 73: 1-85.  

Cite this page: "Challenges in Obtaining Informed Consent: The Case of Forest Resources in Zigiwan " Online Ethics Center for Engineering 3/8/2016 OEC Accessed: Saturday, July 13, 2019 <>