Supplemental uses of video research data and truly informed consent


Video data is inherently different from most other forms of data. Video can capture tone, accent, inflection, pauses, facial expression, body language, and other observable, potentially interpretable and analyzable aspects of human behavior. It allows us to come closer to capturing the reality we observe for detailed study and multi-layered analysis than other forms of data collection.

The qualities that make video data so significant as data also make it very compelling to share with others when presenting our research. Video clips make direct, illustrative qualitative quotes during presentations at conferences, as well as on web sites and in other media-based venues for disseminating research results and findings, such as documentary films or television shows. The more visual the medium we use to share our research findings, the more effective video is for providing evidence of our trustworthiness and the validity of our conclusions.

Video data captures research participants in a way that makes the anonymization of data nearly impossible. Faces and voices are usually readily recognizable. This places an ethical burden on the researcher who collects video data and wants to use that data beyond analysis for their immediate research project. Fortunately, there are a couple of relatively easy steps a researcher can take to simultaneously protect the privacy and dignity of research participants and maximize the usability of the video data that they collect.

When orienting research subjects to a study in which they have agreed to participate, it is of course necessary to fully inform them about what video data will be obtained and how that data will be used for the purposes of the research. It is not adequate, however, to obtain consent for additional uses of that video data during the initial participant consent process. Research participants cannot give truly informed consent regarding the use of video of discussions and events that have not yet happened, and that they might not be able to fully anticipate or predict.

Instead, I encourage researchers to conduct a secondary consent process with each participant at the end of their research studies. Allow each participant the opportunity to review all of the video data collected that includes them, and then ask them to consider giving permission for specific additional uses of the portions of the video data in which they appear. Allow them to specify, freely and in detail, which parts of the video data they are willing to share, and which they would prefer not to share, for each type of additional use. A participant might allow use of their video at conferences but not on the web, for example, or might prefer that video of information they reveal on a sensitive topic not be used at all beyond data analysis for the immediate study.

Obtaining a secondary release from the participant, even a very broad one, does not relieve the researcher from the responsibility to use all video data carefully and ethically, of course. But it does allow the researcher a way to ethically seek participant consent for additional uses of video data while simultaneously protecting the rights and dignity of research participants in an appropriate way. It is often worth the time it takes, and it is always easier than tracking down participants long after data collection has been completed.

(Special thanks to Jen Patashnik for discussing the dual-stage consent process used with the VIA Project, which is where the seeds were planted for my current thinking about this issue.)