Is Your Oral History Legal and Ethical?

2 Preparation

Before the interview or project begins

Before an interview or project begins interviewers or project managers should prepare by taking a number of essential steps so that what is proposed is acceptable to all participants and will pass ethical scrutiny.

Preparatory steps

At the outset the interviewer or project leader needs to consider the purpose of the interview and the possible range of future uses to which it might be put (for example research, educational use, as an archive, transcription, publication, broadcasting and internet use).

Arrangements need to be made for the custody and preservation of the interview and accompanying material, both immediately and in the future. For example, archives which may be willing to accept the recordings should be contacted in advance to check what documentation is required and to ensure that any wording about conditions of access and reference to the archive is accurately presented to interviewees and project partners.

The project’s objectives and intentions can best be expressed in a clear public statement or information sheet detailing the nature of the research or project, which can be widely shared and understood by interviewees, project partners and stakeholders, and potential users.

As well as these steps, interviewers also need to carry out research about the topic to be covered by the interview, acquire sufficient technical knowledge and attend specialist training to conduct an interview of the best possible standard.

Organisations carrying out or sponsoring oral history work should select interviewers of sufficient competence, experience and skill, and if necessary provide sufficient guidance or training to ensure that recordings and documentation are carried out to the best possible standard. This is especially important where a project is engaging volunteers as they will need to be carefully skills-assessed so that training and support can be carefully tailored to each individual. The quality of a project’s output is determined by the commitment of staff and if they are volunteers, within the context of a properly-conceived volunteer programme.

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Ethical considerations

Interviewers working in a UK institution of higher or further education, or whose interviewees are either employees or currently patients of the National Health Service (NHS) will be required to submit their research proposal to an ethics committee. In higher education this will be a Research Ethics Committee

Interviewers wishing to approach staff or patients of the UK National Health Service, offenders and certain other individuals will need to complete the Integrated Research Application System (IRAS) documentation before their project can begin.

Ethical considerations apply to all projects, whether in higher education or not, and these continue throughout the course of the project: from the first contact with an interviewee to preserving, sharing and disseminating the results of interviews.

The following principles or ‘duties’ have been identified by the UK Data Archive:

  • a duty of confidentiality (though not necessarily anonymity) towards informants and participants
  • a duty to protect participants from harm, by not disclosing sensitive information
  • a duty to treat participants as intelligent beings, able to make their own decisions on how the information they provide can be used, shared and made public (through informed consent)
  • a duty to inform participants how information and data obtained will be used, processed, shared, disposed of, prior to obtaining consent
  • a duty to wider society to make available resources produced by researchers with public funds (data sharing is required by some funders)

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Interviewing children and vulnerable adults

Interviewing children and vulnerable adults requires awareness of legal responsibility as well as issues of power and ownership.

So far as children are concerned, based on health service clinical practice and drawing on legal rulings, young people over the age of sixteen can give their own consent to participate in an interview. The age of legal competence for the use of personal data is thirteen in the UK (or twelve in Scotland).

OHS advice is to seek parental or carer consent for interviewing children under the age of sixteen, in addition to the consent of the child where they are aged thirteen or over. In the event of any conflict, the consent (or withdrawal of consent) of the child will take precedence. Information about the research that can be presented verbally and visually should be given to the child or young person to help their understanding of what will happen, what their involvement will be and the expected outcomes of the research. The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO, the regulatory body which oversees data protection and other issues in the UK) is publishing an ‘Age appropriate design: a code of practice for online services’ likely to be accessed by children (the code).

Vulnerable adults, for example people with learning difficulties or with some degree of cognitive impairment, may sometimes be encountered by means of a ‘gatekeeper’- a carer, relative or friend whose role in the interview process needs to be carefully defined. It is important to ensure that explanations and the presentation of the research are communicated in ways that are accessible without being patronising. In some instances it may be helpful for the adult concerned to have a friend or long term associate with them to help with interpretation and explanation of the interview process. All projects and organisations working with children and vulnerable adults should have a safeguarding policy in place, that is a policy to protect the health, well-being and human rights of individuals –especially younger and vulnerable people – to allow them to live free from abuse, harm and neglect.

This guidance includes examples of information and consent forms designed for children and for vulnerable adults. The OHS offers further detailed guidance on working in schools here.

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Interviewing within the family

In a one-to-one interview, interviewees often reveal thoughts, memories and insights that they haven’t vocalised before. Whilst this is very useful for family history research, if the interviewer is a member of the same family as the interviewee this can also mean that information and family secrets might be disclosed that could potentially be distressing to the interviewer or other members of the family. This guidance recommends that, in line with all oral history interviewing, a number of preparatory steps are taken before recording oral history within the family. More detailed guidance and tips for family historians are here.

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