Posted by: bbannan | March 9, 2011

There’s No Such Thing as Online Survey Ethics – Debbie

The title of this blog is a rip-off of the title of the book, “There’s No Such Thing As “Business” Ethics”, by John C. Maxwell. The subtitle gives the true meaning of the title away, “There’s Only One Rule For Making Decisions,” the point of which is, of course, integrity and the golden rule translate to any area of life. I have to admit I had never thought about ethics in regard to online surveying but when I was researching surveys I saw some articles addressing the issue. I’ve always been interested in ethics and decided to delve in.

The web has made online surveying an easy thing to do but maybe too easy? I know that you, like me, are hit up sometimes several times a day with requests to complete online surveys. In their journal article Online Survey Tools: Ethical and Methodological Concerns of Human Research Ethics Committees Buchanan and Hvizdak say surveys, “have been embraced by an array of disciplines and professions as a sound way to conduct both formal, scientific survey research, as well as informal questionnaires, such as customer or employee satisfaction questionnaires.” They also say, “online survey tools are indeed an easy and cost-effective way of conducting many types of survey/questionnaire research projects, as long as the methodological choice is based on sound decisions – not solely on convenience and ease.” Are these surveyors using ethical techniques? What are the ethical issues with online surveys?

Are the surveyors getting an informed consent from the participants? They may consider the act of clicking on the button that takes you to the survey as implied consent, but Castro (Council of American Survey Research Organizations), in its Standards and Ethics for Survey Research, says participants must be “appropriately informed about the survey’s intentions and how their personal information and survey responses will be used and protected.” Or, did the surveyors make the consent language so long, using legalese, such that no one will ever actually read it, hoping the respondent will just click the consent button and move on?  John Mueller, in his article Research On-Line: Human Participants Ethics Issues, addresses this concern stating, “Keep the consent form as concise as possible, and free of jargon and acronyms.”

Are they respecting your confidentiality? Castro’s standards say, “Organizations [are] responsible for protecting from disclosure to third parties–including Clients and members of the Public–the identity of individual Respondents as well as Respondent-identifiable information, unless the Respondent expressly requests or permits such disclosure.”  An online response is never truly anonymous because the surveyor has your email address or IP address. Are they keeping this information confidential?

And are they keeping the data gathered from the survey, linked to your email address or IP address, confidential and secure? Mueller states, “for an on-line data file, confidentiality is achieved in that the data are stored on a computer in a personal account that is accessible only to someone who knows the account userid and password, which should … be just the researcher.” Human Research Ethics Committees (HREC) direct that, “the researcher should ensure that the data and identifiers shall be kept on different servers.”( Buchannan & Hvizdak)

Are they harassing you? Will they, or have they already, become the online version of telemarketing calls? An HREC directive states, “ensure that the commercial online survey agent does not send “spam” requests for participation.” ( Buchannan & Hvizdak) The Castro standards say that respondents should be protected from unwanted intrusions and/or harassment. Does the window inviting you to take their survey, popping up on just about every website you go to, constitute an unwanted intrusion for you? It does for me!

In user-centered design we need user feedback. Online surveys are a relatively easy, quick and cheap way to try to gather this feedback. But about a million others interested in feedback know this as well. If surveys are not deployed ethically and strategically, the public will stop completing them. Something we have to ask ourselves before conducting an online survey — are we following ethical principals when designing and implementing our online surveys?


Ethics for On-line Research

Ethical Issues and “Netiquette”



  1. Debbie,

    Your post really got me thinking about all of the online surveys I receive asking for feedback regarding some topic, service, product, etc. I don’t think I have once looked at the consent language or privacy information, and who knows where my information ends up in the end.

    I just received an online satisfaction survey from Nissan regarding a recent service appointment, so I went back to see how they presented the request. As you mentioned, they did briefly state the survey’s intentions: “At Nissan, quality and customer satisfaction are our primary goals, and your opinion of how we’re doing in these areas is very important to us. Therefore, we would appreciate your feedback on your service experience.” There is also a link to Nissan’s privacy policy at the end of the survey request email, however it goes to a generic web policy not specific to the survey. It covers items such as cookies and log files, volunteering personal info, security, etc., but mostly specific to their website, not necessarily their surveys.

    I continued on to take the survey by clicking the “Start” link from their email. The first screen asks you to pick your language and then you jump into the survey. There is a small Privacy Statement text link at the bottom of the page, and when clicked, a box opens saying, “Nissan collects information from our users at several different points on the Web site. Nissan is the sole owner of the information collected on this site. We will not sell or rent this information to others. We will only share this information with our affiliates, dealers, and marketing partners contracted to do business on our behalf (e.g., brochure fulfillment).” They did keep the language concise and free of jargon and acronyms, however it is a small link on the bottom of the page and up to the user to seek out. You don’t read it and then consent to take the survey, you just happen to see that info if you click the link. I really didn’t like the part where they stated they would share the info with “marketing partners contracted to do business on our behalf.” That really leaves the floodgates open to what you are consenting to…

    When you get to the end of the survey, the survey is auto-populated with your contact details and asks you to complete this section only to correct the information. They provide no option on this screen to be anonymous or state that you have the ability to do so. I was able to delete my info and still submit the form, however an average user might not think to do this. The next and last screen does ask you if you want to keep your information confidential: “We respect your right to provide feedback anonymously. If you want your comments sent to PASSPORT NIS/ALEXANDRIA, but prefer your personal information be kept confidential, please check this box.” A more ethical way of presenting this option would be to post it before you enter your contact information, or even at the beginning of the survey.

    It’s funny to pay attention to how they present the survey to users and how and where they place the consent, privacy information and intentions. This information was provided in terms a layman could understand, however, you had to seek it out. There was no reading of the consent and clicking any accept button in the beginning of the survey.

    I did submit the survey, however I still received a reminder email from Nissan asking me to complete it. I wonder how many “reminder” emails I would have received about completing it?

    Thanks for providing the thought-provoking post on the ethical issues surrounding online surveys. I’m definitely going to pay more attention now and see how different companies approach this issue and what sort of “netiquette” they use. I think it is safe to say that our information will rarely remain confidential and that there is always the possibility of a breach in anonymity.


  2. Really cool to apply it to a timely, real world example. I think a lot of these are sneakily marketing tools. It is good to have your eyes opened about online surveys, both as a “subject” and as a designer and researcher. We need to protect ourselves and also make sure that we are designing our surveys in an ethical manner.

  3. I agree that these methods are not necessarily ethical in the way that research is conducted. It is possible to trace an IP from someone taking a survey. But in reality this is the case of anything that someone wishes to do online. If the person doing the tracing is good enough at computer skills. I know from past experience that surveymonkey and other research survey creation sites do have the information for the survey and the data in different locations. The data is sent to you via an excel sheet and the rest is kept in a server on the site. The data file sent does not include the names or emails of the people taking the test to my knowledge. I could be wrong. However, even this attempt at separation is a little more ethical than the blatant marketing scheme that Windy talked about. The bottom line is, with the tools at our disposal if someone really wanted too they could get the information that they want. The ethics part comes in as not making it easy or profitable for them to do so.

  4. I have really been mulling this one over. I think Matt present only the tip of the iceberg on how effective our tools now are to capture and track information. The Army started a few years ago to include social networking in the operational and personal security presentations. This year they added taking cell phone photos and the ability to track individuals by the active cell phones. The GPS embedded information in the photos was originally viewed as a positive new attribute. Sadly they have become a risk for the users. It all comes down to how the information is used. It is about ethics and values. The question becomes whose values and ethics.
    When I was researching games to teach ethics I kept running into articles and blogs debating whose responsibility ethics are for the Internet, games, apps, etc. There were/are multiple perspectives and opinions. Most of them were very much like what Debbie, Matt and Windy it is up to the individuals/company creating the websites and the information. The scary part is even if the intent is ethical many more people than we know can access the information.
    Good analogy of telemarketers. To be fair surveys distributed by mail were/are just as persistent in sending you constant reminders.

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