Guidelines: Telephone Interviews

In the case where telephone interviews may occur, participants should receive a Participant Information Statement inviting them to participate.

They may be instructed to contact researchers to arrange a time for a telephone interview, or the Participant Information Statement may inform them that researchers will call to inquire whether or not they would be interested in participating.

In regards to consent, participants may either return the signed Participant Consent Form to researchers before the interview occurs or their consent may be obtained orally at the start of the telephone interview.

In the case where it is obtained orally, researchers are required to submit a draft of the dialogue which will be read to participants to seek their consent. There are strict State and Federal Laws concerning the recording of telephone conversations:

What you need to provide the Committee

  • a. Why it is the preferred survey method and why the information could not be obtained in a less intrusive means, e.g. self-administered questionnaires.
  • b. If questions are of a sensitive nature, how the potential for psychological harm is to be minimised and what referral protocol exists for people who experience emotional distress resulting from the interview or the request for an interview.

Interview script

A telephone interview script must be submitted with the application.

  • The introduction should be concise, clearly identifying the caller, for whom the research is being undertaken and referring to the letter. It should also be stated who is funding the research (where relevant) and from whom ethics approval has been obtained. In asking to speak to the intended interviewee, the specific nature of the call should not be disclosed to a third party. For example, it is sufficient to say "I would like to speak to ... regarding a letter we sent to her about women's health", rather than "I would like to speak to ... regarding a letter we sent to her about how often she has Pap tests".
  • It must cater for people who do not receive the information letter, e.g. lost mail or people who have changed address and retained their telephone numbers. If it is necessary to interview such people, the interview cannot proceed until such time as they are provided with an information sheet if they are willing to receive one.
  • If necessary, the script must explicitly seek consent to conduct the telephone conversation and to tape the conversation. Alternatively, participants can receive and return a Participant Consent Form via mail or fax, but this often is not the preferred method because it is time-consuming.

What you need to provide participants

As a general rule, the minimum requirement is that the target population receives a written Participant Information Statement that forewarns them that telephone contact will be made.

Alternatively, the Information Statement may instruct those interested in participating to contact the researchers. In addition to the normal requirements for an Information Statement it should also address the following:

  • a. The reasons for obtaining information via a telephone interview.
  • b. How names, addresses and telephone numbers of the target population were obtained.
  • c. The desired interviewee and why this person is chosen.
  • d. Details of the nature of the questions to be asked.
  • e. When the interview will take place and its length.
  • f. The manner in which the target population may prevent telephone contact, e.g. the provision of a refusal form that can be returned to the researcher.

Consent forms

Consent Forms should contain the following information:

  • where the information will be published
  • who will have access whilst the information is stored in the Department
  • what will happen to the material once the storage period of 7 years has expired
  • that research personnel are subject to confidentiality obligations in collecting the data

Whether or not identifying data is to be recorded, the research personnel involved in collecting the data will inevitably hear information that may be regarded as private or confidential. If there is not already a confidentiality agreement in place generally covering the work of these personnel, then they should also sign a short confidentiality undertaking.

By following the above steps, the researchers will ensure that the participants understand the exact nature of the project and have given their fully informed consent to the use of the information recorded. (Reference: Gilbert and Tobin, 19 May 1995)

Relevant legislation

If researchers plan on recording telephone interviews, they should refer to the State and Federal Laws concerning the taping of telephone conversations.

Both of the above-mentioned Acts prohibit the recording of phone conversations except where all parties to the conversation provide express consent.

This legislation requires that you gain the express consent of participants before you publish or communicate your research based on telephone conversations with these participants to other persons.

As these laws protect privacy, courts will apply them strictly. This will usually mean that the consent obtained from participants should be specific, and identify how the information will be stored, used and distributed.

The level of detail in Consent Forms will depend on the extent of the personally identifying information that is collected, stored and which can be accessed on an ongoing basis.


  • if the information which is collected has no identifying details, so that the parties to the conversation can never be traced or identified by people accessing the primary data, the privacy concerns will be much less, and the consent can be more general;
  • if identifying information is to be collected, and then sieved out from the information - which is then to be distributed - privacy concerns will be heightened. Consideration will need to be given to securely storing the primary data with its identifying details and limiting access to that data and to any system which allows matching of the 'generalised' data with the primary data containing the identification. The consent will need to allow retention of the identifying data and future access to it.