Ethical Implications of Survey Questions

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Woman asking man survey questions off of clipboard.
Woman asking man survey questions off of clipboard. (Image: Cameron Whitman/iStock/Getty Images)

Survey research began in the social sciences as a way to collect information about working class life and poverty in Victorian Britain. At that time, little thought was given to the ethical implications of the various survey questions that were asked. Since that time, the use of survey research has evolved to include the careful consideration of ethical responsibilities of the researcher when using human subjects. This is a key aspect to consider when writing questions for survey research.

Informed Consent

It is important to ensure subjects have a full understanding of the fact that they have the option to opt out of the survey should they object to your survey questions. This understanding is generally created during the informed consent process. The United States Department of Health and Human Services, “for the protection of human subjects in research require(s) that an investigator obtain the legally effective informed consent of the subject or the subject’s legally authorized representative.” Informed consent involves three key aspects, including the disclosure of all information which researcher subjects will need to make an informed decision about whether to participate in the survey. The researcher must take steps to ensure the subject understands the information that is provided and make sure the subject understands that participation in the survey is strictly voluntary.

Option to Skip Questions

Human research subjects must also be allowed to withdraw from the research at any time. This includes the ability to skip questions they find objectionable. Participants should be allowed to stop taking the survey or opt not to answer particular survey questions with which they feel uncomfortable answering for whatever reason. When using an online survey, researchers must use a format that allows participants to either stop taking the quiz or skip over questions they do not wish to answer.

Anonymity

Anonymity is another ethical implication to consider when creating survey questions. Survey research often includes questions about personal information that subjects may feel uncomfortable answering without the promise of full anonymity. In some cases, subjects may not answer questions truthfully if they feel the information may be made public. If subjects do not answer questions truthfully, the resulting data will be skewed. Administrators of research surveys have the responsibility to reassure survey takers, in writing, that their personal information and answers to sensitive questions will remain confidential. When using online surveys, researchers often require the participant to enter an email address upon beginning to ensure people are unable to take the survey more than once. In such situations, the researchers have an ethical responsibility to use the information gathered for only that specified purpose. They must also take steps to protect the information so there is no way for any individual to be identified.

Data Collection

The collection of data is another aspect of survey research that must be approached in an ethical manner. Questions must be composed in a rigorous manner that ensures the questions adequately assess the information that you would like to obtain. Avoid what researchers often refer to as the double-barreled question. For example, do not ask, “Do you like green beans and black beans?” as the respondent might like one and not the other. Instead, split the question into two questions to ensure the data collected is precise.

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