Bard Institutional Review Board
Suggestions for Internet Research
Suggestions for Internet research, including the distribution of email surveysThe Internet has become a popular medium for data collection. As one example, surveys can be distributed through email networks or posted to public websites. There are many tools available to help you set up surveys for use over the Internet. If you choose to collect data over the Internet, you should use a consent form that contains all of the information required in the printed consent form or the oral consent process. Most interview consent forms conclude by saying, "I have read and understand the above information and voluntarily agree to participate in the research project described above," followed by a line for the participant’s printed name, signature, and the date. For an email or online survey consent form you would replace the signature line with the following text: "By continuing with this survey, I affirm my consent to participant and I acknowledge that I am 18 years of age or older." Depending on the response method and the other characteristics of your own unique proposal, this method of consent may preserve either full anonymity OR confidentiality.
Remember that data collected through email responses is NEVER “anonymous," only “confidential," because participants are identifiable through their email addresses. If you are distributing surveys through email, you should include the following statement in your consent process:
“Although it is unlikely that anyone will try to gain access to your email, you have the right to know that email transmissions are not private and therefore transmission of information through this form cannot be guaranteed to remain confidential.”
As an aside, there are a few methodological drawbacks to using the Internet for data collection. For example, the population of respondents is rarely a random sample from your true population of interest, perhaps violating the accuracy of generalizing your findings to the general population. Furthermore, it is difficult to insure the accuracy of participant characteristics, such as self-reported inclusion in demographic categories. It is also difficult to monitor and exclude multiple responses from the same participant or, in the case of responses using accuracy and reaction time, whether participants are fully focusing on the task or multitasking while they complete the study (see also Pittenger, 2003). For senior project research, it is important that you discuss these and other concerns with your faculty adviser and that you address these methodological constraints in the discussion of your results.
These methodological concerns are NOT a concern for the IRB EXCEPT to the extent that data collection may place your participants at risk. For example, if you were to ask sensitive or potentially incriminating information, email addresses, IP addresses, monitoring of computer use in public spaces, recovery of Internet cache or cookies, date and time of login, information tagged by survey tool websites, and perhaps even individually-identifying information provided by a respondent could all compromise not only the assumed anonymity of respondents, but even confidentiality. In the worst case (unlikely, but not impossible), a participant may face legal charges, or personal, financial, or physical harm due to responding to sensitive questions presented in a survey. The role of the IRB is not to prevent or impair the investigation of sensitive or difficult issues. Bard College maintains a policy of academic freedom and as researchers we appreciate the value of confronting difficult, sensitive, and unpopular topics. It is the role of the researcher to ensure that participants are fully aware of their rights, risks, and responsibilities as they contribute to increased understanding of social and scientific knowledge (Sieber & Stanley, 1988). The role of the IRB in this process is as a national and required body of oversight to affirm that researchers are meeting their responsibilities toward their participants.
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