Can I learn to stop worrying
and love online research?
BY JANINE M. JENNINGS, PHD
Conducting research over the Internet allows researchers to capture data as never before.
But it also presents ethical challenges.
Several months ago, the instructional technology consultant in my
department informed us that Qualtrics,
one of the leaders in online data
collection, had developed a mobile
version of its survey software that could
be used on smartphones and tablets.
Not surprisingly, he was excited by the
news, and especially by the fact that the
software allows data to be collected even
when researchers and participants are
offline and data are uploaded later when
connectivity is restored. My own reaction
to this news was mixed. As a researcher
who has chaired an institutional review
board (IRB), every announcement of a
new online or mobile tool for research
participant recruitment or data collection
leaves me conflicted.
Online studies are undeniably
convenient for researchers and
participants alike since people are able to
participate at a time and location of their
choice, without the need for a research
assistant present. Researchers benefit, too, as they can obtain
more diverse and larger samples of people with characteristics
or conditions not readily available within the researcher’s local
community (e.g., Mason & Suri, 2012; Shapiro, Chandler &
Mueller, 2013). In addition, recruitment and data collection
can happen more quickly and cost effectively than in the
traditional lab setting (e.g., Mason & Suri, 2012).
My IRB side, though, worries. To what extent do
researchers and IRBs thoroughly understand the details of
the technologies that are being adopted and the implications
of using them for human research participant protection? In
particular, can researchers and IRBs ensure the security of the
data and make good on any assurances offered in the consent
process regarding privacy, anonymity or confidentiality?
Although the type of information needed to answer these
questions is typically made available by online research service
providers, researchers and IRBs often take some details for
granted or gloss over them, particularly the more technical
ones that fall far outside their expertise.
Lessons learned from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MT) provide
a good example. Although MT has never explicitly stated that
participants remain anonymous, until recently researchers
made that assumption (Mason & Suri, 2012; Paolacci,
Chandler, & Ipeirotis, 2010), reducing IRBs’ concerns about
collecting sensitive data on this platform and leading them to
categorize studies in MT as exempt — that is, the studies are
not subject to the requirements of the federal regulations for
the protection of human participants in research (Paolacci,
Chandler, & Ipeirotis, 2010). However, last spring, a group of