Debriefing the subject is an important aspect of the informed consent process, particularly for studies involving deception. It gives the investigator an opportunity to explain any deception or incomplete disclosure involved as well as to help the subjects deal with any distress or discomfort occasioned by the research.
There may be instances when debriefing would be inappropriate, such as when the debriefing itself may present an unreasonable risk of harm. For example, if an individual were selected for participation in a study about group behavior based on a previously measured “negative” behavior or characteristic, it might not be appropriate for the debriefing to describe the selection process. In addition, if a student is selected for participation in a study based upon certain physical characteristics (e.g., weight), it might not be appropriate for the debriefing to describe that aspect of the selection process.
In certain studies, debriefing immediately after a subject’s participation could compromise study results (such as when the study is ongoing and early subjects might tell others about it). Under such circumstances a delayed debriefing process, such as sending debriefing information to subjects via email, or giving subjects a website where they can view debriefing information when the study has been completed, may be appropriate. In some cases, it may be sufficient to ask the subject being debriefed not to reveal such information to others.
In general, the debriefing process should consist of the following:
- Full disclosure of the deceptive aspects of the study and an explanation of the actual study objectives.
- An explanation as to why the deception was necessary.
- An opportunity for the subject to ask questions.
- When possible, an opportunity for the subject to withdraw his/her data from the study.