Ethical Scenarios - How would you respond?

This section briefly describes some real scenarios encountered by researchers and some information on how the teams involved handled them. This may help you understand some of the types of challenges you may encounter and how to navigate them. You are encouraged to consider how you might handle a similar scenario before you read about the teams involved resolved the issue. If you have a scenario of your own that you think others would find helpful, please contact Mary Ryan at

Scenario 1 - Written Consent

A research project is funded by a grant from a US funder that requires all participants to sign a written consent form. The project involves groups of families, including children, participating in group discussions. It may not be appropriate to have children sign a consent form, but the funder explicitly requires they do so. Additionally, some members of the groups seem to not understand the form but are signing it anyway when they see their peers doing so.

Scenario 1 - See the team's approach

The team engaged with the funder to identify more appropriate mechanisms for acquiring and demonstrating that the participant gave informed consent to participate. These mechanisms included verbal discussions in a local language of all the elements included in the consent form, with the team recording this discussion and the verbal consent from the participants.

Scenario 2 - Health and Inclusion

A student conducting an ethnographic study in a rural Tanzanian village is living with community members and seeking to learn as much as possible about their perspectives on diseases that can be transferred from animals to humans. One of these diseases is brucellosis, for which one of the biggest risk factors for transmission is drinking raw milk. Milk as a source of nutrition and offering milk to guests is a critical aspect of social inclusion and village life. As the student meets new members of the village, they are offered raw milk to drink as a sign of welcome and hospitality.

Scenario 2 - See the team's approach

A student with extensive local knowledge has suggested that requesting chai (tea) would be a socially acceptable alternative. Since milk is boiled for chai, the risk of disease is almost completely removed. Many cultures have some version of a steamed milk drink, so this may also be suitable for similar situations in other countries. At its core, this scenario is about understanding local customs and traditions.

Scenario 3 - Acknowledgement of contribution

A doctoral student with only conversational Kiswahili employs a local man as an interpreter to work with her during qualitative data gathering in Tanzania.  She wants the participants to be able to choose whether to be interviewed in English or Kiswahili.  She asks him to sign a confidentiality agreement and to explain this to the participant at the start of the interview. The interviews became very messy but enjoyable and interesting three-way conversations with constant shifts in language use, and the positionality of all three of them playing out in different ways throughout. It becomes clear that the interpreter himself is contributing useful inputs that could form part of the data set and is actively responding to participants in ways that are not in the students’ prepared questions but are prompting participants to share very useful information for the study. It becomes clear that the interpreter’s role is far from a ‘neutral’ mouthpiece.  

Scenario 3 - See the team's approach

The researcher has a discussion with the interpreter about the shift in his role and how that could be appropriately recognized in the published work. They agree that the interpreter will sign a consent form so that his contributions can be included in the analysis – he was an important part of the co-construction of knowledge and needed to be made visible in the write-up.