Reducing Risk in Qualitative Research

What is Qualitative Research?

Qualitative research is a method of inquiry employed in many different academic disciplines. The purpose of qualitative research is to gather an in-depth understanding of human behavior and the reasons that govern such behavior. (source)

Examples of Qualitative Research

  • Ethnography
  • Marketing
  • Oral Histories
  • Community Based Participatory

Examples of Data Gathering Methods

  • Observing Participants
  • Focus Groups
  • Participant Interviews
  • Open-ended Survey Questions
  • Photos

Reducing Risks*

In order to approve a submission, the IRB needs to make federally-mandated determinations about each submission, based on the information provided in the IRB application.

Investigators can assist in the efficiency of the IRB submission review process by making sure the IRB application includes a clear plan for how risks will be minimized.

Breach of Confidentiality

In many qualitative social science research, investigators collect detailed information about a study participant’s life, experiences and perceptions. If this information is maintained in a confidential manner and is inadvertently disclosed to others, the study participant might become embarrassed or experience other harms.

While all study data should be kept confidential, some research data might require higher levels of  data protection. Investigators should evaluate the data being collected in the context of the social setting and address measures for data security.

For more information regarding Boston University’s Data Protection Standards, please review the following website:  In addition, Information Security at Boston University also offers a free full-disk encryption service.   Please contact Quinn Shamblin, Executive Director of Information Security, Boston University at for more information.

Violation of Privacy

Individuals have a right to control the extent, timing and circumstances of information shared about themselves with others. In a research setting, investigators have an obligation to protect the privacy of study participants.

If research is conducted in the United States and the disclosure of the research data might put the participant at risk of adverse consequences (for example, damage to financial standing, employability, reputation, insurance etc.) investigators can apply for a Certificate of Confidentiality to help protect against forced disclosure (for example, through a subpoena).

Reportable Situations

Depending on the nature of the study, investigators may encounter situations that are considered reportable events. Child or elder abuse or neglect are examples of reportable events.

In some professions, reporting of these events is mandated by law. For example, public educators and many health care professionals are mandatory reporters. Investigators need to be aware of the laws and regulations within the state or country the research is taking place so that they can comply with their reporting responsibilities.

Study participants need to be made aware of any reporting responsibilities that the investigator must adhere to. This can be done during the informed consent process and outlined in the consent document.

Additional Guidance

*Source – Adapted, in part, from the Institutional Review Board Member Handbook. Third Edition. Robert Amdur and Elizabeth A. Bankert