Conducting your research

Dealing with complaints

Occasionally, a participant will make a complaint during the course of a research project, whether formally or informally.  This is perhaps more likely to happen if the research uses more ethically sensitive methods (such as opt-out sampling techniques), but it can happen in any study. 

Complaints are always worrying – and can be upsetting for the researcher too, if you feel that your professionalism and ethics are being criticised – but they should be taken seriously, and handled sensitively to avoid an escalation of problems.

Informal complaints will usually come directly to a member of the research team.  In general, it’s a good idea to try to deal with a complaint informally first, if you can.  In doing so, consider the following steps:

(a)  Make sure you understand their concerns

  • Consider whether you are the best person to deal with it – offer them the opportunity to speak to your line manager, project director, or supervisor. 
  • Let the person talk, to make sure they get a chance to explain fully their concerns, and what they would like to happen. 
  • Try not to interrupt or disagree with them, but let them know you are listening to what they are saying. 
  • Equally, don’t feel you have to leap in to apologise straight away – the point at this stage is to understand what they are concerned about.
  • Take notes if possible while you are talking (or immediately afterwards). 

(b)  Show that you take their concerns seriously

  • Let them know that the study has been approved by an ethics committee, and offer to give them the contact details for the committee.
  • At this stage, you might need to say that you need to look into the issue further, and offer to call them back (preferably at an agreed time).  This can also be a helpful strategy because it gives the complainant a little cooling off time, and gives you a chance to check with your colleagues – about what has actually happened, and to discuss the best way to respond. 

(c)   Investigate what has happened

Whether or not you feel the complaint is justified, start from the position that you need to understand why your research process has caused upset, in order to address this specific incident, and to reduce the likelihood of the same problem arising in future:

  • Has anything happened that has contravened your study protocol and the terms of your ethics approval?
  • Is the complaint about the conduct or behaviour of anyone on the team?
  • Is the complainant unhappy about something that has been agreed as part of your protocol?  Research ethics is full of grey areas, and so it is always possible that an individual participant may not be happy about something that an ethics committee has approved.  That doesn’t mean their concerns should not be taken seriously. 
  • Is there anything that you can or should change in your procedures or working practices as a result of this incident?
  • Consult with colleagues or with a member of the ethics committee, as appropriate – don’t try to deal with it on your own.
  • Check the formal complaints procedures for the ethics committee that has approved your research – make sure that you are familiar with this information so that you can advise the complainant appropriately.  Having this to hand also sends the message that you are confident that your conduct stands up to scrutiny, or that you recognise the issue and are prepared to deal with the formal consequences – either way, it may reassure the complainant.

(d)   Respond to their concerns

  • Don’t be afraid to apologise – even if you don’t agree with their complaint, you can still say that you are sorry that they have been upset.
  • Take time to speak to them, to explain what you have done (and will do) in response to their complaint.  You might want to put this in writing too, depending how they react.
  • Show them that you have taken it seriously, even if you do not feel there is anything you can change as a result of their complaint.
  • If the complainant is a participant (or potential participant) reiterate that their participation is wholly voluntary, and that you can destroy their data if they choose to withdraw.
  • If need be, remind them that they can make a formal complaint to the ethics committee that approved your research.

If someone decides to make a formal complaint about your research to the ethics committee, don’t panic. 

Check the ethics committee’s policy and procedures for dealing with complaints, take advice where you can (from experienced colleagues, and from the ethics committee itself if possible), and investigate yourself what has happened, as thoroughly as possible, so that you are prepared for the committee’s investigation.

Procedures vary from institution to institution, but in general, you can expect that the committee will scrutinise their approval of the research, and will speak to the complainant, to you, and to anyone else they consider relevant (e.g. your supervisor and other members of your team).  If you are being interviewed by the committee, you should usually have the opportunity to bring someone with you – and this is a good idea, if you can.