Collecting data online provides a way by which research can proceed without exposing both participants and researchers to COVID-19. Research studies using these methods were not affected by the closure of the campus in the Spring 2020 semester and will be able to continue should the campus need to be close again in the future.
While not all human subjects research can be conducted this way, it may be possible to reframe research questions in a way that can be addressed by online methods. This may be especially important for students planning theses as a graduation requirement.
The points listed below address some of the ethical issues presented by online data collection. Researchers are encouraged to check this list frequently as they plan their research.
Never trust the Internet. Researchers conducting online research should be careful not to make guarantees of confidentiality or anonymity, as the security of online transmissions is not guaranteed. A statement in the informed consent form indicating the limits to confidentiality is required. The following statement should be used: “Confidentiality will be maintained to the degree permitted by the technology used. Specifically, no guarantees can be made regarding the interception of data sent via the Internet by any third parties.”
Use the proper software for your research. It is the responsibility of the researcher to protect participants from harm, and this extends to the security of the software and/or internet-based resources that might be used. Researchers should set settings for the maximum level of privacy possible. This might include removing the tracking of addresses and time stamps recording when participants are using the software. The steps taken should be reported to the IRB in the application as well as to the participants thorough the consent process. The IRB does not require certain software or internet providers, but see below for options.
Email. The use of email is appropriate for most research, but should not be considered an absolutely secure and private medium of communication. SCSU email is subject to system office inspection, and any email system van be accessed by hackers. Researchers communicating with participants about extremely sensitive topics should investigate and use email that is secure and encrypted.
Interviewing. Videoconferencing software has proven useful for conducting interviews remotely but presents unique risks to participants. Privacy is threatened as the interviews may be overseen/overheard by others in the physical area of both the interviewer and participant. Intruders or hackers may access the interviews or the stored recordings. The use of Zoom was prohibited by CSCU in 2020, which was challenged by a grievance by the AAUP. Researchers planning on using Zoom should check to see under what conditions it may be used and what permissions, if any, are required. Regardless of what video conferencing software is used, researchers must ensure that the safeguards are commensurate with the sensitivity of the data and document the steps that are taken to make the security of the platform sufficient for the intended research use.
Surveys. In the Fall of 2019 Southern Connecticut State University acquired a University-wide license for the Qualtrics web-based survey and analytics platform that covers all faculty, staff, and students. This software is preferred and should be used. Note however that the license does not negate researchers’ obligations to keep the data confidential or anonymous and to report those steps in the protocol.
Standards for recruitment materials. Researchers have an ethical obligation to inform prospective participants of the procedures, risk, and benefits of what they are being asked to do in the study. The recruitment letter starts the consent process. It should explain that explains who you are, why the research is needed, and instructions on how the research can be accessed. Contact information for the SCSU IRB must also be included. This document must be submitted for review. If advertisements or flyers are used in place of a cover letter, the materials should provide contact information for the researcher.
The description of the research provided to participants should be factual but not persuasive. In all cases, hyperclaiming the research should be avoided. Describing the research as “important” or “crucial” must be avoided.
Create a consent process that fits the data collection method. Usually, the participant signs an informed consent form to document that the researcher has provided information about the study.
Online research usually does not allow for a signed consent document, yet information about the study must still be presented. Online research can use a consent cover letter and check box process similar to what one does when one agrees to accept website use policies. This letter is best placed at the start of a survey. Interviews and focus groups can use a dual process by which a consent cover letter is sent ahead of time and reiterated at the time of the interaction, either verbally or in print These are only some possible options; researchers should devise and propose consent procedures that fit the specific project. For more information about constructing consent, see https://inside.southernct.edu/sites/default/files/a/inside-southern/rpp/Guidelines-and-Instructions-for-Informed-Consent.pdf
Consent should be an on-going process. Studies that use multiple sessions or procedures should reiterate the consent process at each session. For example, a study that involves surveys and interviews should have separate consent processes for each method as each method has different procedures and risks. They will also likely be spread out in time.
Recording should not occur without consent. Recording should only be done when it is absolutely necessary for the research, and not because it is convenient due to the technology.
If audio or visual recording is to occur, participants must be expressly informed of it at recruitment and consent to being recorded. This information must also specify how the recording will be secured and who will have access. The means by which privacy and c confidentiality of the recording will be maintained will also need to be specified.
The possible future use of the data must be specified. Consent documents need to include a statement about the potential future use of the data that will be collected. This applies only data that will be de-identified prior to the future use. Therefore, one of the following statements MUST appear on informed consent documents:
If the data (in a de-identified form) WILL OR MIGHT BE used in the future:
Identifying information will be removed from the data that will be collected, and the information could be used for future research studies or distributed to another investigator for future research studies without additional informed consent.
If the data (in a de-identified form) WILL NOT BE used in the future:
The information or biospecimens collected as part of this research, even if identifiers are removed, will not be used or distributed for future research studies.
Be aware of confidentiality and privacy threats tied to website/software use. Only the data that is needed for the research should be collected. Learn and report on the steps that the tools that are being used allow for privacy and confidentiality. For example, many online surveys sites allow for the collection of ISP addresses, which can identify a participant. Similarly, date and time of completion may be collected by the software. Make sure that the options that allow for the collection of this data are not selected (or deselected) if the data is not needed. If it is needed, then it must be justified in the IRB application. In either case, the steps taken should be included in the consent document.
Survey questions must not require answers. The only question that may require an answer is a response that the participants have read the informed consent information. Participants must be given the ability to not answer questions that they do not wish to answer. Internet-based survey instruments must be formatted in a way that will allow participants to skip questions if they wish or provide a response such as “I choose not to answer.” Also, at the end of the survey, there should be two buttons: one to allow participants to discard the data and the other to submit it for inclusion in the study.