Ethical considerations for evaluation research

Ethical considerations for evaluation research

25 November 2013

Dr Rachel Carson outlines how going through the ethics application process and receiving ethical clearance provides welcome reassurance.

Introducing ethics applications

It is most likely that any program evaluation that you undertake as a service provider will be subject to an ethical review process.

Although a little daunting, going through the ethics application process and receiving this ethical clearance provides welcome reassurance that the proposed project meets the ethical standards outlined in the National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans (PDF).

It is important to allow sufficient time for the preparation of the relevant ethics application and accompanying documentation, keeping in mind that unless your project is low-risk and qualifies for an expedited review, submission of your material is likely to be required some time prior to the scheduled Ethics Committee meeting.

Documentation accompanying your application may include data collection tools (survey instruments or interview schedules) as well as information sheets about the research, consent forms and protocols for researcher personal safety or for negotiating consent with potentially vulnerable participants.

Seeking informed consent

Your ethics application should demonstrate that potential evaluation participants will be provided with information about the evaluation in an accessible, plain language format. Participants must be allowed sufficient time to consider the information and raise any queries before deciding on their involvement in the research. This information may include:

  • the purpose of the research;
  • details of any funding and/or commissioning stakeholders;
  • information about the nature and duration of participant involvement;
  • information about how the data will be used, stored and who will have access to it; and
  • the measures in place to safeguard the anonymity, confidentiality and privacy of participants.

An important aspect of participant consent is the absence of any pressure to participate. It is important for researchers to make clear to participants that participation is voluntary and that they are free to withdraw from the research at any time without consequence.2

Measures to confirm a participant’s ongoing consent may be required where the data collection occurs over an extended period or where the participant becomes distressed. If participants are to be drawn from a dependent population (for example, recipients of the program services subject to the evaluation), providing opportunities for their refusal to participate and for their withdrawal from the research is a key ethical consideration.

Seeking agreement to participate from children and young people requires particular attention. Children and young people must be provided with an age-appropriate information sheet. Verifying that children or young people are fully informed about the research and are participating of their own volition can be challenging.

Having a protocol in place that involves the researcher engaging in a relaxed discussion that covers the content of the information sheet and confirms the child’s willingness to participate at a point in time sufficiently prior to their involvement in the research is one possible safeguard.

Providing avenues for support following participation

Engaging in evaluation research (for example, in the context of service provision in the field of family violence) may give rise to participant distress.  In these circumstances it is prudent to have protocols in place outlining the steps that will be taken to alleviate distress and to refer participants to appropriate support services; a measure that is likely to be required by the ethics committee prior to clearance.  

Further information

Demystifying ethical review

Collecting data from parents and children for the purpose of evaluation: Issues for child and family services in disadvantaged communities

National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Research Involving Humans (PDF)

Smith, A. B., Taylor, N., & Gallop, M. (Eds.), (2000). Children’s voices: Research, policy and practice. Auckland: Pearson Education New Zealand.

Squirrell, G. (2012). Evaluation in Action – Theory and practice for effective evaluation. Dorset: Russell House Publishing.  

2. In the case of survey data collection on an anonymous basis, the withdrawal of consent would apply at any time prior to completion and submission of their survey.

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Rachel Carson

Dr Rachel Carson is a socio-legal researcher with expertise in family law and qualitative research about family law disputes. After practising as a family lawyer, Rachel worked as a researcher in family law at the Melbourne Law School (University of Melbourne) and was awarded a Melbourne Research Scholarship to undertake her PhD in this field of research at the University of Melbourne.


Since joining the Family Law and Family Violence team at the Australian Institute of Family Studies in June 2012, Rachel has worked on a range of projects, including the Independent Children’s Lawyer Study and the Evaluation of the 2012 Family Violence Amendments Project. Rachel was the lead researcher on the recently completed Children and Young People in Separated Families: Family Law System Experiences and Needs project, together with the Institute’s Direct Cross-examination in Family Law Matters Study.


Rachel has contributed to the Institute’s elder abuse scoping studies and is currently working on the Elder Abuse National Research - Strengthening the Evidence Base - Stage 1 research program commissioned by the Australian Government, Attorney-General’s Department.


Rachel is a consulting editor for the Family Law Review journal and has represented the Institute in various capacities, including as the AIFS observer on the Family Law Council, a body that provides policy advice on family law to the Commonwealth Attorney-General.

Related information

CFCA logoDemystifying ethical review
An overview of the ethical review process and how it applies to service providers evaluating their own programs.

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