Focus groups are an important method for data collection in qualitative research.  While they offer many advantages to both researchers and research participants, they also raise some unique ethical concerns.  First, researchers cannot guarantee confidentiality to focus group participants.  Whether or not contributions to the focus group discussion remain confidential depends on the willingness of other participants in the focus group to respect that confidentiality.   Second, focus groups addressing sensitive topics may raise some social risks for participants that cannot be well controlled by the researcher.  For example, participants in the focus groups may respond to each other in ways that are painful, embarrassing, angering, or frustrating for other participants. 

In order to address these concerns, the Fort Lewis College IRB has established some guidelines for researchers. In general, when a focus group is discussing a topic which is not sensitive (for example, taste or brand preferences), there is less concern about confidentiality and social risk.  On the other hand, as the sensitivity of the topic of the discussion increases, so do the steps that researchers should take to protect subjects.   The following is a list of guidelines aimed at reducing ethical concerns raised by the use of focus groups:

  1. Researchers should offer a clear research-based justification for using focus groups rather than some other lower-risk method for obtaining the information.   The level of justification required is proportionate to the level of sensitivity of the topic.
  2. The risks associated with the focus group must be outweighed by the benefits obtained through the focus group.  Focus groups discussing highly sensitive research topics should only be led by highly-skilled researchers with the training necessary to lead the discussion effectively and analyze the results meaningfully.  IRB applications which include a proposal to use focus groups should provide evidence of the appropriate training of the researcher conducting the focus group.
  3. All focus group participants should participate in an informed consent process which includes a section asking participants to respect each other’s confidentiality, while also acknowledging that researcher can’t guarantee complete confidentiality.

Any application which includes a proposal to use focus groups to discuss a sensitive topic will automatically undergo full review (review by the entire IRB) as opposed to expedited review (review by a single member of the IRB).