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Covert and deceptive research and debriefing

This page provides information about the use of deception in research and the importance of developing appropriate debriefing materials.


It is important to consider whether your project involves covert or deceptive research. Covert research is done without informing those that are the focus of the research that they are being researched. Deception involves misrepresentation of the research to participants or withholding information about the full or true purpose of the research.


In general, researchers are encouraged to provide as full information as possible to participants. Full and adequate disclosure of information is necessary for participants to give free and informed consent. However, in cases where full or true disclosure of study information would be likely to significantly influence participants’ responses, the use of deception may be justified.

Deception should only occur where it is essential to achieve the necessary results, where alternative options are not possible, and where the specific research objectives have strong scientific merits.

Standard research practices to avoid bias, such as not disclosing the study hypotheses to participants before the study, do not count as deception.

Studies involving deception should be carefully designed to protect the rights and welfare of participants. Any misrepresentation or concealing of information should be clearly detailed in your ethics application, and procedures to prevent potential distress or harm should be explained in full. For studies involving deception, debriefing is a requirement.


Debriefing involves informing participants about the purpose and motivations of the study they have just taken part in. Debriefing of participants is an important part of the research process and is essential for studies involving deception.

Debriefing of participants may be appropriate, for example, to enable participants to express how they felt during the study, to offer signposting to further information or aftercare, to express views on the process, or to explain studies involving misrepresentation or withholding of full information.

Debrief information should provide participants with an explanation of the background of the study, the hypotheses being tested, and any relevant contact information for further follow-up or signposting. Debriefing information should avoid the use of jargon.

For studies involving deception, debriefing materials should explain the design and procedures used for deception, and the reason(s) why deception was necessary. After debriefing participants in studies that have involved deception, it may be necessary to re-consent participants. Please indicate if you are planning to reconsent participants and justify your decision if you do not intend to do so. If you will be reconsenting participants, please add this information to your debriefing materials explaining that participants have the opportunity to confirm or withdraw their consent.

Further information

Find out more about research ethics and integrity

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