When does a study involve incomplete disclosure?

Incomplete disclosure occurs when an investigator intentionally withholds relevant information about the specific purpose, nature, or other aspect of the research. Incomplete disclosure is used when providing full disclosure to subjects prior to study participation is likely to alter subjects’ behavior, resulting in biased responses and potentially less valid data.
Most commonly, investigators will inform subjects about the purpose of a study in general terms that are accurate, but intentionally broad or lacking in detail so as not to reveal the specific objective(s) of the study.

Study Example:

  • Subjects who identify as Democrat are asked to complete a survey about Republicans, but are randomly assigned (unbeknownst to them) to read either a negatively-framed or positively-framed true story about Republicans prior to answering survey questions.

Can incomplete disclosure also be deceptive?

Yes, incomplete disclosure can also involve deception. This is known as passive deception, or deception involving omission of relevant study information. Investigators employ passive deception in research when there is a strong possibility that providing full disclosure to subjects prior to participation is likely to alter subjects’ behavior as well as affect their decision to participate. It is also probable that subjects will feel as if they have been deceived once the investigator’s true intentions have been revealed to them – for instance, upon debriefing.

Study Examples:

  • Subjects in a research study are video-recorded without their prior knowledge and consent.
  • Subjects are told that they are completing a survey task to evaluate fictional job applicants’ qualifications, when the survey is really evaluating subjects’ discriminatory tendencies.

When does a study involve deception?

Deception occurs when an investigator intentionally provides false or misleading information about the research purpose and/or study procedures. This is also known as active deception.

Study Examples:

  • Subjects are told that they will be collaborating with another subject to complete research tasks, when their “collaborator” is actually a researcher (i.e. a confederate).
  • Subjects complete a reading comprehension task. Afterwards subjects are falsely told that the majority of other subjects who completed the same task scored higher, before being asked to complete a follow-up survey on self-esteem.
For more information, please review the CPHS Guidelines on Deception and Incomplete Disclosure in Research.