When collecting data from participants with online tools, there are risks to data anonymity, confidentiality, and privacy. Researchers must consider these risks in their proposals to conduct online research. These are described below.
Server location. When researchers select an online survey tool or service, it is important for them to know and describe in their proposal the geographical location of the servers that host the survey and store participants’ data. The location of their server is often listed on the survey program main page. If not, researchers should contact the program administrator directly for this information.
Data anonymity and confidentiality are vulnerable when stored out of Canada, particularly in the USA. Data stored on servers based in the USA are subject to the United States Patriot Act that permits US law enforcement officials, for the purpose of an anti-terrorism investigation, to seek a court order that allows access to the personal records of any person without that person’s knowledge. Given this, researchers are to include a statement to that effect in the informed consent. This statement differs whether the survey is anonymous or and the survey topic sensitive or not.
- For online surveys that are anonymous and for which the topic is not sensitive
- For online surveys that are not anonymous and/or for which the topic is sensitive
Researchers are to include a sentence, on the informed consent, indicating where the data is being stored and that, as a result of the data being stored outside of Canada, anonymity cannot be guaranteed. In cases where it is not possible to know the server location, then the sentence to be included could be modified to: Because the server for this study may be located in a country other than Canada, we cannot absolutely guarantee the full confidentiality and anonymity of your data. With your consent to participate in this study you acknowledge this.
With respect to surveys hosted in the United States, the consent form should advise participants about the risks to confidentiality/anonymity relating to the US Patriot Act. A suggested wording for studies employing servers located in the US is:
Please note that the online survey tool used in this study (add here the name of the survey) is hosted by a server located in the USA. The United States Patriot Act permits U.S. law enforcement officials, for the purpose of an anti-terrorism investigation, to seek a court order that allows access to the personal records of any person without that person’s knowledge. In view of this we cannot absolutely guarantee the full confidentiality and anonymity of your data. With your consent to participate in this study you acknowledge this.
Research Tools. There are a number of different tools available for students and faculty to conduct their surveys online. The Psych-REB encourages researchers to use online survey tools whose servers are located in Canada (e.g., Fluid Surveys; Ask It).
If the sample consists of students (in either PSYC 1001, 1002, 2001, 2002 or NEUR 2001, 2002) and they will be assigned a credit or financial compensation for taking part in a study, the following tool, located in Canada, is available: SONA.
IP addresses. Researchers must indicate, in their proposal and on the informed consent, whether IP addresses are recorded by the online survey tool or service. And, if so, how confidentiality is assured.
Anonymous surveys and compensation. Researchers should include, in the proposal and the informed consent, a description of how credit or other forms of compensation will be given if participation is completely anonymous. For instance, some researchers give credit to all students requesting the link to the survey.
Note that researchers conducting online research are encouraged to render their surveys anonymous. One way to do so is to create two surveys. The first survey, using an online tool located in Canada, includes the informed consent and is used to collect the identifying information necessary for compensation, as well as randomly assign an ID number. The Next button at the bottom of the informed consent is a link to the second survey. The tool to create this second survey could be located outside of Canada. Participants start the survey by typing their ID number. Hence, the second survey is completely anonymous (ensure that IP addresses are not recorded). By creating a second (separate) survey and not just a separate page, researchers are creating two separate databases for the actual study. Thus, there will be no personal information in the database that contains the actual survey data. As always, researchers are to indicate when the personal information in the first database will be destroyed.
Debriefing. Researchers proposing on-line surveys must specify the mechanism by which participants may withdraw at any point and be directed to appropriate debriefing (e.g., a withdraw button), or to indicate and provide the rationale for an alternative to such a mechanism.
Recruiting participants online. Researchers planning to recruit participants online, must specify: (1) what program will use to do so (e.g., Fluid Surveys); (2) where the link to the study will be placed online (e.g., forums, Facebook, MySpace); (3) as well as the recruitment notice. For example, if you are planning to place the link to your study on Facebook, specify where on Facebook the link will be placed (e.g., a paid ad will be created or the link will be posted on the wall of an existing group). Remember that you must receive permission before placing your study online.