The following is an extract from an article by Professor Jerry Wellington of the University of Sheffield in February 2014 (with emphasis added):

Interviewing Vulnerable People in a Funded Evaluation

This scenario is designed to present two ethical dilemmas which can occur during fieldwork: can researchers always produce the ‘hard data’ required by funding bodies? And can interviewers draw a line between a research interview and a counselling session?

I was asked to be part of a research team to evaluate a National project aimed at ‘re-engaging’ students aged 14 to 16 who had become ‘dis-illusioned’ with school attendance and the National school curriculum of that time … The evaluation, funded by the relevant government department, was asked to provide ‘hard data’ to show that the heavily funded initiative was ‘making a difference’.


The major ethical issue we faced during the project emerged as we really got to know the 20 pupils benefitting from the initiative. As part of the evaluation each pupil was interviewed, usually one-to-one, by a member of the team. During these interviews we were often drawn into conversations and revelations which can best be described as ‘inappropriate’ and certainly did not contribute to the hard data required by the funding body to show that the intervention was ‘working’. For example, one student feared that she was pregnant. Another told of abuse she was subjected to at home by a ‘step-parent’. A third told us that he was planning to runaway from home. Others told of similar complications and tensions which had seriously affected their education and therefore their alleged ‘dis-affection’ with school.

How were we to deal with these situations? They posed two ethical dilemmas:

  • First, if the interviews became counselling sessions would we be able to ‘produce’ data of the kind being paid for by the funding body? Yet, if we turned our backs on the issues that they were raising, would the pupils have continued to engage with us? (we had already found out that most of them were subject to large mood swings so that at some interviews they barely uttered a word; in others they would not stop talking).
  • Second, what were we to do with the revelations made to us? Were they true in every case?

How did we deal with the issues raised?


The first thing we did was to discuss the interviews with the teachers of our young interviewees. We spoke directly to the pastoral tutor of each student and of course these were the teachers they knew best. The teachers were highly professional and they knew a great deal about the life histories of the students. We felt that, since we were researchers, we then had to leave the decisions as to what action to take, or which interventions to make, to the teachers as the pastoral carers with the insider knowledge. As for the subsequent interviews, we felt that we had to continue in the same way and if some aspects of the discussion/conversation were about the private lives of the students this would be un-avoidable. It did not mean that the interviews turned into ‘counselling sessions’ (especially as neither researcher is a trained counsellor) but we could not exclude or separate the personal issues from the educational issues that we had been asked to explore.

Perhaps the general question for those engaged in research of this kind is: Is it possible to draw a line between a research interview and a therapeutic interview when dealing with vulnerable people? All human beings lead complex lives but some are more complex than others.

(by Dexter Leung)

The approach adopted by the University of Sheffield researchers would suggest that, if issues arise during an interview with vulnerable people falling outside the scope of the research project, the researcher should, where appropriate, speak to a parent/guardian/teacher/carer who has responsibility for the vulnerable interviewee. What do you think about this?

In the HKU context, the Policy on Research Integrity states that ‘All researchers have a duty to care for the human participants … under study’ (Section 1).

Section 2.1 states that:

The design of the research should aim at maximizing the benefits and reducing the risks to participants of the research. There should be an appropriate balance between benefits and risks, and the well-being of the participants involved, especially those from vulnerable groups (such as young children and the mentally disadvantaged), should be protected. Rights of participants to make decisions for themselves should be respected, and researchers should not exert undue influence on participants’ decisions. Researchers should avoid conduct that may directly influence or distort research results. In collecting information, researchers should be sensitive towards differences in ethnic origin, culture, social class, religion, gender and age, and the information collected should be used only for the purpose of the investigation.

Further, Section 2.3 states that:

All human and animal research subjects must be treated with care and respect. In the design of the research, sufficient provisions should be made for ensuring the safety of the human participants in the data collection. Risks and distress to participants should be estimated and kept to a minimum. The safety, health and welfare of the community and of all people relating to the research must be safeguarded.

According to Section 3.2:

Abuse of data – this includes


Unethical collection of data – collecting data through exploitation of vulnerable or disadvantaged groups, or unnecessarily infringing upon the privacy of participants; the data collection process harmful to participants, or putting them to more risk than necessary;

Section 2.3 of the European Code of Conduct for Research Integrity (which is referred to in the HKU Policy on Research Integrity) states that:

– All research subjects, be they human, animal, cultural, biological, environmental or physical, should be handled with respect and care.

– The health, safety or welfare of the community, or of collaborators and others connected with the research, should not be compromised.

– Sensitivity to age, gender, culture, religion, ethnic origin and social class of research subjects should be evinced.

Researchers intending to conduct interviews with vulnerable people would therefore be well advised to consider carefully the content and questions during the planning stage. This would include taking into consideration the likely/foreseeable effect of the questions/interview process on the interviewee.

Researchers are required to obtain ethical approval from the appropriate Ethics Committee prior to commencing data collection for research involving human participants (Section 3.5, HKU Policy on Research Integrity).

See also:



Wellington J. Interviewing Vulnerable People in a Funded Evaluation. [online]. Sheffield; February 2014 [Accessed 5 August 2016]. Available from:!/file/CaseStudy-provided-by-Jerry-Wellington-Feb14.pdf