In most research the subject should be informed about the purposes, procedures, risks, and benefits of the research. However, some research requires some degree of deception. Usually deception consists of merely failing to inform the subject about the specific purpose or outcomes of interest, in order to prevent biasing the results.
The fundamental ethical principles underlying human subjects research require that subjects make informed, voluntary, decisions to participate in research. Deception conflicts with these principles. This means that the use of deception must be justifiable, and that the risks associated with the specific type of deception must be adequately counterbalanced by the benefits of the deception.
The risks of deception are usually psychological or social in nature rather than physical. The risks can vary considerably from study to study. For example, psychological or social risks of deception may be significant in studies that deliberately lead a subject to believe that he or she has committed a crime, has a disease, is prejudiced, or has some serious character flaw. Risks of deception may also be significant when researchers study a closed group such as a secret society by becoming a member without revealing the intent to perform research.
The use of deception imposes special responsibilities on the researcher. The risks of deception must be clearly identified in the IRB application, together with any ways in which the risks can be reduced or managed. In each case, the IRB Committee will require information sufficient to understand why deception is needed, how the potential benefits of deception justify its use, and how debriefing of subjects (if appropriate) will be done.