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Celia B. Fisher

Do Limits to Confidentiality Bias the Sample?

Posted on December 6, 2007

Celia B. Fisher (bio) addresses the informed consent/attrition debate.


Some investigators have been concerned that informing parents and children or other populations that there are limits to confidentiality might, in fact, reduce the sample size or in some way bias the sample. There’s been no evidence in the literature that that ever occurs.

I had a National Science Foundation funded study in which we interviewed adolescents as well as parents and we’ve done a series of studies which show that parents, for example, are more willing to give informed consent for high risk research if they know either that their child is gonna be helped or that the child will get a referral even if the parents are not informed about the referral. As long as they’re told in the informed consent what is going to happen.

We’ve also found in a lot of the research that we’ve done that adolescents do not always prioritize autonomy over their need for help. And in problems that they perceive are serious like suicide, in some cases sexual harassment, in other cases, extensive drug use, they want a referral from the researcher even if it’s a survey study.

So, we are scientists. Without any empirical evidence, I don’t think that we should assume that we’re going to have attrition. And from an ethical perspective, you’re going to get the best kind of data if in fact you’re honest with your participants.

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Excerpted from interview with researcher at the 2007 SRCD Biennial Meeting in Boston, MA.


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