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Q. Regarding the topic “data protection” and “privacy.” In your own experience, do participants show greater concern about the privacy of their data when using online tools for interviews? And also, in general, how can we make participants feel more confident in the online environment so we can get natural speech in conversations? – Marta Rodriguez Garcia
A. This is an excellent question! When you have conversations about collecting data with participants online, whether qualitative interviews or quantitative surveys, you might hear comments such as “how can you be sure the participant is who they say they are?” While that is a question for another day, your question gets to the flip side, which is not often discussed: how can the participant know you are who you say you are? Are you a legitimate researcher, who will treat them with respect, protect their identity and data, and use what you learn to make the world a better place?Recent scandals and endless stories of trolls, hackers, and questionable practices on social media platforms have not helped.
The first step is to do your homework and be sure you have selected a research setting and plan that will allow you to protect the participants’ privacy. The second step is to convey trustworthiness and credibility to participants believe you.
What do potential participants find when they search for you online? Will they find a digital presence that assures them that you are credible and trustworthy? Will they learn about you in a way that will increase their comfort level for talking with you in an online interview, or responding to a survey or questionnaire?
I am including here an updated excerpt from Chapter 7 of Qualitative Online Interviews with some suggestions about building your credibility with participants before and during a study.
Ensuring Research Participants That Researchers Are Credible
We live in an interview society, a society where nearly every purchase is followed by a request for participation in a follow-up questionnaire. Our telephones buzz with a stream of polling requests. At the same time, people who participate online in social media and other communities are increasingly wary about their privacy. They wonder, Who wants my information and why? How will this information be used? Why should I spend my precious time giving you my information? These conditions may lead to reluctance to participate in research studies. While as researchers we are concerned with the credibility of participants, potential participants are equally concerned with our credibility. A thoughtfully crafted web presence is one way to address this issue by introducing ourselves and our research interests in a way that builds positive impressions with potential participants.
The researcher’s web presence can take numerous forms; two are described broadly here as (a) statements and images posted on others’ sites, blogs, friendship walls, or communities, or (b) statements and images posted on the researcher’s own site, blog, or social media page.
Research tip: Create a recruitment statement so all posts or requests use consistent language to describe the study and convey the same message to potential participants.
The first step is to create a statement that introduces you as the researcher. Think from the position of a potential participant: What would inspire someone to trust me as a researcher and what would generate interest in my work? This statement should include the researcher’s academic and professional credentials and affiliations. Student researchers may want to identify their academic institutions and (with permission) their professor or dissertation supervisor. However, the simple fact that “I am a doctoral student conducting research for a dissertation” is not usually adequate to appeal to potential participants. The introduction should point to the new knowledge the study aims to contribute in order to build a sense of importance for study participation.
To build this sense of importance a very specific recruitment message should be used to better reach the target population. The researcher can fruitfully use this message to appeal to potential participants who meet inclusion criteria or ask for nominations of research participants.
The statement should explain the researcher’s approaches and expectations on the matters discussed in this chapter. Avoid academic jargon, and take a friendly but professional tone. A succinct but comprehensive statement may include these elements:
- Purpose of the study: Summarize the research questions, reasons for conducting the study, and the researcher’s goals for the results should be outlined. Is the researcher conducting dissertation or thesis research? If so, note the institution. Such academic purposes assure potential participants of some level of faculty oversight of the study. Is the researcher assessing needs for programs or services? Creating the basis for a larger survey research project? How will the researcher disseminate the findings? What aspects of the researcher’s goals will draw in potential participants and motivate them to contribute?
- Ethics and privacy: Offer assurances about ethical conduct of the study, confidentiality, protection of privacy, and private data storage. Indicate appropriate ethics, institutional, or other review board approvals granted for the study. If the study anticipates an international sample, indicate how you will address multiple sets of requirements.
- Criteria: State key sampling criteria, including characteristics, scope, and focus of the desired sample.
- Expectations: List the time frame for the study, time commitment, and technology tools needed for participation. All steps of the study should be spelled out, particularly when the researcher wants more than one interview, the opportunity to send follow-up questions by email, review of the interview transcript after the interview, or additional data collection steps such as a questionnaire or observation of the participant’s interaction in an online community.
- Screening and selection process: Provide sample size information, and explain how the researcher will choose participants.
- Incentive for participation: Discuss reasons target population members should participate. Appeal to their sense of altruism, and point out that they will be creating new solutions to a problem, improving understanding of an issue, or adding to the body of knowledge on a topic. Mention any other incentives for completion of all data collection steps, such as a gift card or perhaps an executive summary of findings, invitation to a webinar on the findings.
One benefit of such a statement is consistency of language and message so that all potential nominators or research participants begin from the same common understanding of the researcher’s identity and the nature of the study. In the case of a heterogeneous or extreme case sample, the researcher may refine some elements of the statement to appeal to diverse audiences.
Create an online space where participants can learn about you and your study.
Researchers can create a space where the researcher’s introduction, statement about the study and recruitment message can be posted online: a website, blog, or virtual space. Free blog or website services are ideal for this purpose. In addition to text-based descriptions of the call for participation, the researcher can create a video clip or audio version of the recruitment message. These personal touches can help increase interest and build presence with site visitors. Links to the researcher’s academic institution or other publications can convey integrity and authenticity of the study. Be sure to provide means for contact, such as a link to an e-mail or messaging address, preferably one associated with the educational institution to reinforce academic credibility. Avoid using the researcher’s physical address or phone number, which could lead to privacy violations for the researcher.
Here is an example of a researcher’s blog from one of my former students, Dr. Bessie Bowser.
If a text-heavy statement is not suitable for the people you are trying to reach, consider recording a short video or audio. I created an example to demonstrate this approach:
A video introduction can be a good choice when you plan to conduct an interview on a videoconference platform, because it shows the participant how you might interact with them online. They can see you as a warm human being on the other side of the screen, not an intimidating character. This might help with the second part of your question– about building comfort with online communication.