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Ethical issues to consider when conducting survey research

What are the ethical standards you should adhere to as a survey researcher? And which ethical questions should you look out for when you create and conduct your survey? Let’s explore.

What do we mean by ethical issues?

Ethics are ideas about what is morally right or wrong. There’s no universal consensus on exactly where the line falls between ethical and unethical behavior – everyone is different after all. But there are some areas where ethical best practices are well established, especially when it comes to organizations who are dealing with the general public or with their own employees.

Like any other facet of organizational behavior, survey programs and research projects come with their own ethical questions and best practices.

Learn how to design the most effective survey questions with our free guide

Unethical surveys – what do they look like?

There are some specific ethical considerations in questionnaire research. Here’s a quick run-down.

  • Confidentiality
    Confidentiality is important. If a researcher promises confidentiality and then fails to keep information provided by participants, especially personal data, safely stored and handled, they’ve breached a participant’s trust.
  • Informed consent
    Failing to get informed consent means a participant might agree to take a survey without a full understanding of what it’s for or what will happen to the answers they provide.
  • Anonymity
    While a researcher may have the best of intentions, if they fail to correctly segregate personally identifiable information from survey answers, or worse still, store that information in a way that leaves it accessible to prying eyes, they have acted unethically.
  • Persuasion and pressure
    There are ethical concerns in research if participants feel unduly pressured, cajoled or coerced into taking part in a survey.
  • Failure to disclose interest
    Survey results should always be published with a statement disclosing any interest by sponsors funding the research, so that the results can be understood in context. For example if a survey into the effects of a certain mattress technology on sleep quality was sponsored by a mattress manufacturer, this should be clearly disclosed wherever the results are published.

What is the AAPOR code of ethics?

While conducting survey research, most academic and private sector organizations follow the code of ethics and practices established by the American Association of Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), which address ethical considerations for survey researchers. This code calls for honesty, respect, and integrity in dealing with respondents, clients, and the public.

According to the AAPOR code of ethics:

  • Before they agree to take part, respondents should be given the content, sponsorship, and purpose of the survey so that they may make an informed judgment about whether they wish to participate. Any assurances, such as confidentiality or anonymity, must also be kept by the researcher.
  • Researchers are called to disclose fully to those who sponsor surveys the limitations and shortcomings of the survey and to avoid use of methods that deliberately introduce bias into the results.
  • A survey report should include certain information including who sponsored it, who conducted it, exact wording and sequencing of questions, description of the population and how a sample was selected, sample sizes and sampling tolerance, and the method place and dates of data collection.

How to conduct ethical survey research

Taking the AAPOR code as a guide, we can divide survey ethics into 3 main areas -– how you treat participants, how you treat data, and how you treat your sponsors and interested parties, including the general public and anyone who might make decisions based on your findings.

1. Ethical treatment of survey participants

  • Begin your survey with an introduction that explains the purpose of the survey, what will happen to the data and who the research benefits (E.g. is it market research for business, an academic study, a government program).
  • Be transparent about what you are asking of them, what you will do with their data, and how you will handle their personal or sensitive information.
  • Write your introduction and questions on the basis that participation is 100% voluntary, and that a participant can choose whether to begin the survey, or if they’ve already begun, complete the survey.
  • Take care to avoid question wording that may offend, distress or humiliate participants.
  • Consider and protect the interests of minors and people who are vulnerable, e.g. those with learning disabilities, who may take the survey.
  • Be clear about what participants must do to qualify for any survey rewards, how to claim them and how the reward will be delivered.

2. Ethical data handling and processing

  • Have the necessary security and storage solutions in place to protect the data, and use software systems and human procedures that will help keep it safe.
  • Guard against bias in your survey flow and wording to avoid skewing your data.
  • Use appropriate statistical tests to validate your findings and show significance in your results.
  • Use tools and technologies that are fit for purpose and will not introduce errors or bias into your results.

3. Ethics in communicating results

  • Document and publish the methodology you used in your research, including the sample selection process, sample size, data processing techniques etc.
  • Explain the limitations in your methods and disclose any uncertainties in your conclusions or areas requiring further investigation
  • Correct any errors quickly and publish the new results alongside or in place of the old ones.
  • Be ready to disclose on demand. The level of detail specified by AAPOR is seldom available in published research reports or media summaries but should be obtainable with a phone call, email or letter to the sponsor of the survey.

Modern technology is increasing transparency

Today, online survey software has made the process of gathering ethical information and following ethical best practices easier than ever.

  • It’s straightforward to disclose your aims and intent in the introduction of an online survey and to gain informed consent with a button click. When designing a new survey, you can share an online draft version internally for a quick ethical peer review of your question wording and order and the wording of your introductory statement.
  • A good survey engine will take care of the ethical requirements for security and confidentiality, storing your survey data in a secure centralized platform.
  • Once the results are in, it can also perform the necessary data cleaning, processing and statistical analysis within the same secure environment.
  • Finally, modern best-in-class survey software makes it easy to disseminate results using automated reports, which can be edited or updated with ease if new results come to light.

With a good survey software program, you can provide the relevant information and maintain your survey ethics and best practices with ease.

Learn how to design the most effective survey questions with our free guide