Online research includes collecting data from participants with their knowledge and consent, as well as using pre-existing public data collected online. Research that takes place online or using online data also needs to adhere to the ethical requirements of the National Statement. Online research may present unique challenges to the existing ethical principles of research merit and integrity, justice, beneficence and respect.
Examples of online research methods:
- Online survey (e.g. Qualtrics, emailing a survey form to participants)
- Audio and video call interview, one-on-one (e.g. Skype, Zoom, phone, WhatsApp)
- Audio and video call focus group (e.g. Skype, Zoom)
- Forums and discussion platforms (e.g. Wattle, Facebook groups)
- Use of pre-existing online data (e.g. public posts on social media, website traffic statistics, search engine histories)
- Use of secondary data (data that has been collected and shared by someone else) such as health data, transactional data, administrative/legal data.
This includes: surveys and questionnaires on Qualtrics or sent via email.
Consent and withdrawal: There needs to be clear, explicit mechanisms for consent. It may be more difficult to confirm that participants meet certain requirements such as age thresholds, so you need to weigh up the potential benefits and harms of participation by individuals that do not meet these requirements. You also need to have a plan for participants who withdraw from your study, including whether or not you will use the data collected from them before that point.
Deception and Debriefing: When designing surveys involving deception, consider that participants may quit the survey before being debriefed about its true purpose, and try to plan to mitigate any potential harm to participants in this situation.
Confidentiality: You have less control online over what information participants or host sites may keep and share. For example, the content of emails may not be secure. Others may link data collected online with other information that increases the risk of identification (e.g., IP address), leading to a breach of confidentiality. You should treat participants' online pseudonyms and usernames with the same respect as you would a person’s real name. Carefully consider the information collected before making claims about anonymity. For example, if you collect email addresses for payments or follow-ups, you are collecting personal information that may identify the participant.
Research Merit and Integrity: You may not be able to monitor or control the following online:
- who participates in the research (e.g., does the participant meet age requirements),
- the environmental conditions (e.g., is the participant watching television at the same time?),
- research procedures (e.g., how experimental stimuli or conditions are presented online),
- participants’ feelings, reactions, responses.
When planning your research, consider whether these unknowns affect the quality of your data and how you can best prevent/address these issues.
Consent and withdrawal:
- Participants should receive a written information sheet about the research, which warns them that telephone/video call contact will be made, and the time/duration of the call.
- When text messages are used, participants should receive a written information sheet about the research which informs them about when message contact will be made (whether it will be intermittent throughout the day or will be in a single session).
- If video conferencing software (e.g., Skype, Zoom) is used, the interviewer should ask the interviewee if they prefer audio only or audio and video can be used.
- If the interview will be audio and/or video recorded, the researcher must first obtain consent from the participant to do so.
- If the interview lasts more than 5 minutes, the interviewer should ask the interviewee if they are willing to proceed every 5 minutes. Unlike in an online survey, in an online interview the participant may feel obliged to continue or unsure about how to end the interview.
- If the questions address sensitive issues (e.g., domestic violence, sexual behaviour), or if the subject matter changes during the interview, then interviewees must be told what the questions will cover and their willingness to proceed ascertained.
Confidentiality: If someone else other than the participant picks up the call, the specific nature of the call should not be disclosed to them.
Privacy/security issues: Software used to conduct online interviews may have security or privacy issues. This means that the participant’s information may be accessed by others.
- E.g., Zoom-bombing (strangers intruding into your interview session). Researchers should be aware of the security options on Zoom. Interviews conducted via Zoom should have a unique meeting ID and a password. Enable a waiting room for new participants. Once the interview begins, lock the meeting to outsiders.
- E.g., people in the same household as the participant may overhear the conversation between the interviewer and the participant or glimpse messages/emails between the interviewer and the participant.
Privacy and security issues raise particular concerns about asking questions about sensitive issues (e.g., domestic violence, sexual behaviour, illegal behaviour). This is because privacy and security issues may trigger a breach of confidentiality, which may result in physical, social or legal harm to the participant.
- If the risk to participants’ safety from participating online cannot be appropriately managed, then it should not be done.
- The participants must be made aware of the risks, what the researcher has done to mitigate risks, and what the participant should do to further mitigate risks.
When using a text messaging service it is particularly difficult to ensure that the individual you are speaking to is the participant. This raises further concerns about asking questions about sensitive issues.
Participant welfare: As in face-to-face interviews, you need to look out for how participants are feeling, check their willingness to continue to participate, and debrief with them afterwards if necessary. You may need to be more intentional about these steps when conducting your interview online compared to if you were doing face-to-face interviews. You should also provide appropriate, accessible options for if they want to access support services.
Online focus groups
The privacy and security issues for online focus groups are further reaching than for online interviews (see above). For example, in an online video focus group, household members of participant A may overhear participant B, or see participant B on the screen, breaching their confidentiality. To protect all participants’ privacy and confidentiality, the researcher could request that all participants use a pseudonym, and use only audio through earphones or participate in a private room to reduce risk to themselves and to other participants.
Pre-existing online data
This includes analyses of “found text” in blogs, discussion forums or other online spaces, data scraping, analyses of hits on websites, or observation of other types of online activity such as search engine histories.
Internet communication is simultaneously both private and public. Just because information is available online, this doesn’t mean that it is free to use for research purposes. You need to consider your ethical and legal obligations, before deciding it is okay to use the information.
- Would the person (who this information is about) have a problem with their information being used in your research?
- Do you have the rights to hold this data for research purposes?
- Participants may consider their publicly accessible internet activity to be private, despite agreeing to terms of service or End User Licence Agreements.
- Communications may have been conducted in private, but since then been published on another site.
- Websites such as blogs are publicly accessible, but the content remains under the copyright of the author or the web host.
- Web service providers may own “private” communications between its users.
Confidentiality is still very important. Bear in mind that direct quotes can be easily traced back to the original post.
Under the Privacy Act 1988, individuals may request access to personal information that is held about them. Withdrawal should still be an option even when data has been collected from a public source.