Consent Process Models  

We appreciate your feedback about this resource as it develops. Please contact a member of the IRB staff if you need assistance designing your consent process.

What is the process for obtaining consent?

The process for obtaining consent includes the steps that will be followed and the resources/information that will be used to inform the participant. The process for obtaining consent should be customized to fit the needs of the participants, while considering a study's risks and procedures, as well as the study location and the study team's access to the participants.  

When obtaining consent, the federal regulations require that the following elements be incorporated into the consent process:

  1. Provide the participant with all of the required information about the study. See below: What information will be provided to the participants during the consent process?
  2. Give information in a language the participant understands. This means
    1. Use the language (English, Spanish, Vietnamese, etc.) that the participant speaks, reads, and understands; and 
    2. Use terms that are appropriate for the participant's understanding. For the general population, this means simplifying scientific terms, using short sentences, etc.
  3. Give the participant an opportunity to ask questions before providing consent. It is important that participants understand what you have told them about the study. If the participant has questions about the study, the study team should ensure an appropriate individual is available to answer those questions.  
  4. Give the participant enough time to consider being in the study.  It is important the participants not feel undue pressure to be in the study. Giving them enough time to think about their choice helps to reduce this pressure.  It is recognized that some studies have urgent timelines for enrolling in a study.  In these cases, the study team must consider additional ways to reduce the pressure.  
  5. Do not use exculpatory language in the consent process.  Exculpatory language is
    1. Any language that waives or appears to waive the rights of the participant
    2. Any language the waives or appears to waive the liability of those conducting the research (investigators, sponsors, institutions, etc.)
  6. Document that the participant's consent was obtained before beginning study procedures. See below: How will consent be documented in the research record?
  7. Give a copy of the signed consent form to the participant. This is required in cases where consent is documented with a signature on a consent form.  

What information will be provided to the participants during the consent process?

Investigators must provide important information about the study to participants during the consent process, such that participants can make a decision about being in the study. This information is generally provided in a written consent form, but may also be given in another written format (a letter, an email), or may be provided verbally.  

The IRB provides consent document templates that include all of the required elements of consent for the following regulations:

These templates can be viewed on the IRB Forms pages. Using the templates will help to ensure that all consent elements are included. Study teams may design their own consent documents based on the consent elements in the regulations; these will be accepted by the IRB, so long as the required elements are included. These templates may also be used to design consent letters, consent emails, and verbal consent scripts, to ensure to that all consent elements are included.  

If you have justification for leaving out one or more of the consent elements that are applicable to your study, you must request an Alteration of Informed Consent in the IRB application. You will be asked to provide justification as part of the Alteration request.  

How will consent be documented in the research record?

A participant's consent must be documented in the research record as proof that the participant

  1. was given the choice to participate,
  2. was given the necessary information about the study, and
  3. gave his/her affirmative consent before beginning the study. 

Consent (and authorization) are commonly documented by obtaining a signature from the participant and then keeping the signed document in the research record. A copy of the signed document must also be given to the participant.  

There are instances when the participant cannot give legally effective consent for him/herself, such as when the participant is under the age of 18 or is cognitively impaired. There are also instances when getting a signature is not reasonable or practical.  

The sections below describe instances when the common method of documenting consent with a signature requires additional considerations or is not reasonable or practical.  

Parental Permission and Assent

When a participant is a child, under the age of 18, documentation of consent must be obtained from the parent(s). Additionally, assent may be required for children ages 7-17. Please review the following Investigator Guidance Series documents that provide in depth information about the parental permission and assent processes:

    • Research Involving Children
    • Parental Permission
    • Assent 
    • Wards of State

Consent from a Legally Authorized Representative (LAR)

When a participant is cognitively or decisionally impaired, he/she may not be able to understand the study information and consent process presented. In these cases, documentation of consent must be obtained a legally authorized representative of the participant. Additionally, assent may be required for adults who are cognitively/decisionally impaired but can understand the study well enough to provide assent.  Please review the following Investigator Guidance Series documents that provide in depth information about the LAR consent and participant assent processes:

    • Research Involving Individuals with Decisional Impairment
    • Assent

Consent for Non-English Speaking Participants

When a participant does not speak English, consent documentation must include proof that the consent process and elements were provided in the participant's language. This means that consent documents must be translated into the language understood by the participant.  

A translator with appropriate language expertise must translate the consent documents. The translator certifies his/her translation by writing a letter to describe his/her qualifications for the translation.  A template Translation Certification Letter can be found on the IRB Forms pages.

There are situations when a translation of the consent document cannot be obtained. In these cases, the IRB may consider it appropriate to use a translated short form in combination with an oral interpretation of the full English consent document. A short form is like a cover letter to the full consent form, telling the participant what to expect during the oral consent process discussion of the study. When using the short form process to obtain and document consent, strict rules must be followed according to the federal regulations, described in the Short Form Instructions for Use.  Pre-translated short forms are available on the IRB Forms pages.

In most cases, and in all cases when using the short form, a qualified interpreter must assist in the consent process. Members of the study team who are fluent in a participant's language may also provide interpretation. Investigators must be sure that the individuals providing interpretation and translation services have appropriate medical/scientific language skills to accurately communicate the details of the study.  

Consent Without a Signature

Consent without a signature can only be approved by an IRB in the following situations:

    • The only record linking the subject and the research would be the consent document and the principal risk would be potential harm resulting from a breach of confidentiality.
      • In this scenario, each participant must be asked whether he/she would like to sign a consent document. If the participant declines to sign, but voices consent verbally, he/she can still be in the study.  
    • The research presents no more than minimal risk of harm to subjects and involves no procedures for which written consent is normally required outside of the research context.

Consent without a signature requires that a waiver of documentation of consent be requested in the IRB application. The IRB application asks for justification according to the situations above.  

In many cases, it is still appropriate to provide the participant with written information about the study, discussing the required consent elements.  This is often done using a consent cover letter; a template for the consent cover letter can be found on the IRB Forms pages.

When a signature is not obtained, another method must be used to document consent in the research record. Consider the consent process example scenarios below for additional methods of consent documentation.  

Opt-In and Opt-Out Consent Models

An opt-in model is one where the participant must affirm his/her consent before the study team may begin procedures. A participant may opt in by signing a consent form, verbally consenting, or using another acceptable method. 

An opt-out model is one where the participant does not have to affirm consent before his/her inclusion in the study begins, but must affirm dissent if he/she wishes to be excluded from the study.  Opt-out models are often used when the participant does not have to physically engage in any study procedures; for example, when existing data about the participant will be analyzed for the research.  

Consent Process Example Scenarios

Consider the example scenarios below when designing your consent process. These examples may not be appropriate for all studies and should be customized to specific research when proposed to the IRB.  

Consent Process Example Description
Telephone consent process when a signed consent form is required 

Though a signed consent form may be necessary before beginning study procedures, it may be appropriate to obtain consent over the phone before the first study visit.

Mailed or online questionnaire using a consent cover letter

When a questionnaire is minimal risk, a waiver of documentation of consent is often justified. When a consent cover letter accompanies the questionnaire, consent to participate is given by completing and returning the questionnaire.

Opt-out parental permission for children's participation in research conducted at an elementary school

Based on the nature of a research project and according to the preferences of an individual school or school district, it may be acceptable to inform parents of research conducted at an elementary or secondary school and use an opt-out model if a parent wishes to have their child excluded from the study.  This model requires a waiver of documentation of consent in order to waive the signature requirement. 

Coming soon:
Focus groups or interviews using a consent cover letter

When a focus group or interview is minimal risk, a waiver of documentation of consent is often justified.  When a consent cover letter is provided to potential participants, their consent can be documented using written communication or a note-to-file drafted by the study team.  

Coming soon:
Consent process with a legally authorized representative

Coming soon!

Coming soon: 
Consent process for children who are wards of the state

Coming soon!

Coming soon: 
Consent process with a participant and a caregiver who is not acting as a legally authorized representative

Coming soon!

Coming soon:
Consent process involving a witness for participants who cannot read or are physically unable to sign the consent form

Coming soon!

Consent process for enrolling non-English speaking participants with a short form

When a full translation of the consent form cannot be obtained, it may be appropriate to enroll a non-English speaking participant using a translated short form.  The short form must be used in combination with the full English version of the consent form, facilitated by an interpreter. 

 Sample Consent Documents

The IRB provides sample consent documents that may help investigators to design their own consent documents. The samples below contain all of the consent elements and local requirements for the study for which they were originally designed. Use of these samples does not guarantee the IRB will approve similar consent documents designed for other studies.

Consent Samples Description
Sample 1: Consent and Authorization

Minimal risk, biomedical study
Tissue banking requirements
Genetic testing requirements
Legally authorized representative requirements
Signature required

   External References

  1. DHHS Common Rule, Elements of Informed Consent & Documentation of Informed Consent: 46 CFR 46.116-117
  2. FDA, Elements of Informed Consent & Documentation of Informed Consent: 21 CFR 50.25 & 27
  3. VHA Handbook, 1200.05: Requirements for the Protection of Human Subjects in Research
  4. HIPAA Elements of Authorization: 45 CFR 164.508(c)