Informed Consent in Online Research with Participants

Categories: Data Collection, Online Research, Other, Research, Research Design, Research Ethics

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In the first quarter of 2021 we explored design steps, starting with a January focus on research questions. We continued to learn about the design stage in February by focusing on Choosing Methodology and MethodsThe March focus was on Designing an Ethical Study.

As we transition into the focus on Collecting Data from Participants in April, let’s think about the place where ethics and participants intersect: informed consent. This post is adapted from more extensive writings on these topics in Doing Qualitative Research Online. Fun fact: a new edition is in press!

What is informed consent?

Informed consent is the term given to the agreement between researcher and participant.

Any interaction between researchers and participants that yields data, whether structured and formal or unstructured and conversational, should be preceded by a discussion of the research and expectations, and written or verbal affirmation of consent. Research that involves direct interaction between researcher(s) and participants to collect data, such as interviews, surveys, creative methods, or participant-observations, typically needs to follow these protocols. Exceptions for special cases aside, most ethical research practice is based on the voluntary participation by people who understand what is expected and why.

The United States Code of Federal Regulations (e-CFR, 2008) mandates that researchers obtain informed consent to do the following:

  • Protect human subjects/volunteers;
  • Ensure that potential study subjects clearly understand the benefits and risks associated with their participation in a study; and
  • Provide the potential study subjects with all information needed to reach a decision on whether or not to participate in a research study.

What does it mean to be informed?

Researchers need to make clear to their participants what material they will collect and how material about them and/or from them will be used. It is important to discuss specific uses of material such as types of quotations or images, as well as the kinds of publications or presentations you intend to develop. Additionally, describing how participants’ identities will be protected is a critical part of the process.

Verbiage and content for the typical consent agreement is often spelled out by your academic institution or discipline. However, sometimes the institutional form letters researchers are required to use tend to be formal and legalistic. You know as well as I that such documents are quickly scanned and signed– much as we do when agreeing to use of an app or social media account. You might have to request a signature on this kind of letter, but don’t expect that it means the participant is truly informed. If your institution or ethics review process requires this kind of signed document, you might want to think about the informed consent as two distinct but related parts: the formally verified consent and the ongoing process of informing participants.

What should be included when you are informing participants about online studies?

Doing Qualitative Research Online
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Online researchers may need to consider additional points when informing potential participants about the kinds of data to be collected and expectations for the exchange. For example, if you are conducting an interview on a videoconference platform, do you expect the camera to stay on? Is it acceptable for the participant to use a virtual background, or do you want to see the real setting? Do you expect the participant to find a private space where others can’t overhear them? For surveys or questionnaires, is it acceptable for participants to skip questions or submit an incomplete instrument? Think about the options, and inform participants.

Another example: when a researcher conducts an interview in a physical setting, some level of observation occurs. Would you make note of the pictures on the participant’s desk, books on the shelf, magazines on the coffee table, art of the wall? Such common objects may convey information about family, cultural heritage, sexual orientation, hobbies, or social memberships that may or may not be relevant to the study. If such observations were noted, would the researcher ask for the participant’s agreement to use such information as data?

This question is even more intriguing online, since an individual may have a wide range of personal information in a profile or posts. While information on a site that is accessible without registration or membership may be considered public, the situation is less obvious in regard to information posted on social media sites or online communities where registration or membership is required. To err on the side of ethical research behavior, participants can be given the option to allow or disallow information from online profiles or social media pages to be used as data.

Think through the nature of the study, types of data you want to collect, the sensitivity and risks associated with it, and inform participants of your expectations at the outset and throughout all stages of the inquiry.

What process should you use whe informing participants about online studies?

How do people in the target demographic for your study prefer to receive information? If they prefer audio or video to a written document, create a short recording to explain study expectations. If they prefer visuals, create an infographic or comic-style graphics. If you are conducting interviews or other data collection events that involve talking with your participants, begin your interaction by reviewing key points, and record responses that affirm they understand.

Consider making a blog or page dedicated to the study, and include a jargon-free description of the purpose and potential value of the research as well as the points you want the participants to know. Embed your video introduction. Link to your prior research or your academic institution to show your credibility. For a study with multiple interactions or a longitudinal study, post updates about how the study is going. You can link to this page from posts or emails, so potential and active participants can feel that they are a part of a valuable project.

How can consent agreements be verified online?

When studies involving participants are conducted online, researchers may look for alternatives to the paper and pen form of agreement. In some Internet research ethics protocols, the click-if-you-agree type of online form is considered as an acceptable approach. An advantage of a succinct checklist is that the participant won’t simply scroll to the bottom and sign without reading. If a verbal agreement is acceptable, record the participants’ response a the beginning of the interview.

If an electronic form will work in your circumstances, one way of accomplishing it is by using an electronic survey tool such as SurveyMonkey. This approach also allows you to verify that the participant meets inclusion criteria. This informed consent example  (see covers the main requirements of an informed consent agreement for online qualitative research and can be adapted for your use.

You can also provide the consent form as an e-mail attachment or use an electronic signature platform. Depending on institutional or other requirements, it may be necessary for the physical signed form to be returned via surface mail.

Research Ethics Resources

The Association of Internet Researchers Ethical Guidelines we mentioned are freely available online. You will note that there are multiple iterations: each builds on, but does not replace, the earlier set. I encourage you to look carefully at the 2012 and 2019 guidelines to learn more about ethical research with participants as well as extant or Big Data.

Free Online Research Ethics Resources from Dr. Helen Kara

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We will be discussing online research ethics and practices in the next MethodSpace Live webinar!

Register now for the May 25 conversation about Blurring the Boundaries: A Research Conversation about Doing Research Online.

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