Projects Conducted Online

Institutional Review Board Policy on Online Participant Recruitment and Data Collection

The internet is quickly becoming a powerful research tool. Researchers have quick and fairly easy access to populations that may have been out of reach in the past. On-line survey companies such as Formsite and Survey Monkey have made it easy to develop sophisticated online questionnaires. However, the internet does pose some significant challenges to conducting good, ethical research. The intent of this document is to 1) provide researchers with some resources that will help them to make good design decisions for their projects, and 2) to outline some of the ethical considerations that are unique to conducting on-line research.

Recommended Readings

For anyone who is interested in conducting research on the internet:

Important Ethical Considerations for Internet Research

Participant Recruitment:

How do you verify age?

Participants need to be 18 years or older in order to consent to participate in a study. If they are not 18, a parent or guardian provides the consent. Verifying age on the internet is impossible. However, there are practices a researcher can use to increase the likelihood that her participants are 18 or older.

  1. State at the outset of your study that participants must be 18 or older to participate. 
  2. Have participants provide their date of birth on a couple of different occasions. For example, you could have them provide DOB on the consent form, and then again later on an additional “page” of your survey. The researcher can check to see if the two dates match. If they don’t, this could be a good reason to suspect the participant was not of age, and the researcher could then discard that individual’s data. 

Advertising Study 

  1. You should provide the IRB with the ads that you will post on the internet to attract and recruit participants. 
  2. In order to decrease the likelihood that you will attract underage participants consider carefully: 
         i. Where you will place the ads (e.g., on pages that are likely to be viewed by only college-aged individuals or other adults), 
         ii. The content of the ad – as suggested by Nosek, Banaji, and Greenwald (2002) design the ad to be attractive to adults while minimizing its appeal to children. For example, refrain from using popular cartoons on the ad if your intent to attract adults to your study.

Informed Consent

In the sample consent form that is posted on this site, there is a line that states “The procedures to be followed in the project will be explained to you, and any questions you may have about the aims or methods of the project will be answered”. Clearly, this issue becomes more difficult to deal with when the researcher is not physically present. You could handle this issue in a couple of different ways: 

  1. You could provide an email address to which the participant could send queries about the procedure. 
  2. You could develop an FAQ link to the consent form, which includes questions or concerns that a participant might have concerning your study. 

 How do you know what questions a participant might have about your procedure?

Kraut, Olson, Banaji, Bruckman, Cohen, and Couper (2004) suggest that the researcher does extensive laboratory piloting with the procedure so that the researcher is clearly knowledgeable about the questions participants might have about the procedure.  

Minimal vs. non-minimal risk studies

  1. If your study falls into the category of “minimal risk”, the IRB may elect to waive the requirement for written documentation of the informed consent. In this case, a participant would still read the informed consent, but then she would only have to click a button that says she agrees to participate. She would not have a document that she would need to sign and return to the researcher. 
  2. If your study is not a minimal risk study, you could have the participant print out the informed consent, sign it, and mail it to you.  

Another aspect of informed consent involves communicating to your participants that they are free to discontinue participation at any time, without penalty. 

  1. As with a traditional laboratory study, this should still be clearly stated in the informed consent. 
  2. In addition, you might consider having a button on your survey pages that allows the participant to opt out of your study at several different points. 

Debriefing

When a researcher conducts a traditional, on-site study, she can take note of how the participants respond to the experience during the session. If participants seem to experience confusion or have some other negative response, the researcher can note this, and then clear up any confusion during the debriefing session. This issue can be best addressed by piloting your study on-site before collecting data on the internet. The on-site piloting will alert the researcher about any questions or concerns that arise as a result of participating in the research project.

When a project concerns sensitive issues, a researcher should think about additional support options for her participants after the study is completed. In on-site studies, the researcher has traditionally provided the participants with a number for a counseling center, for example. There are many good options for on-line support that could be offered to participants. For example, the researcher may direct participants to a particular on-line support group. 

Security issues

  • When a study falls into the category of minimal risk, the IRB is less concerned about how the data are transmitted via the internet. 
  • When a study is not minimal risk, it is incumbent upon the researcher to provide evidence that the transmission and storage of the data are secure.

What must a researcher do if she is conducting an online study?

  • You must address how you will verify the age of the participant.
  • You must provide the IRB with the ads that will be used to recruit participants, and you should indicate where the ads will be “placed”.
  • You need to address how participants will interact with the researcher if the participant should have questions concerning the procedures to be used in the study.
  • You need to indicate how informed consent will be obtained (see section 2bi-ii).
  • If your project does not fall under the category of “minimal risk”, you must address:
    (1) How your participants will be debriefed and what resources you might provide for them.
    (2) You need to address security issues regarding the transmission and storage of data.
  • Submit a link to your online survey/questionnaire.