Ethical Concerns in Survey Research

RR graphic - no words.jpgEthical Concerns in Research

Ethical considerations for survey research will be examined in this module.

Learning Objectives:

  • Describe why adhering to ethical principles is important in research.
  • Explain the specific ethical issues that are most important in survey research.
  • Describe the purpose and function of the Institutional Review Board.


Ethical considerations in research are critical. Ethics are the norms or standards for conduct that distinguish between right and wrong. They help to determine the difference between acceptable and unacceptable behaviors on the part of the researcher. Why are ethical considerations so important in research? The integrity, reliability and validity of the research findings rely heavily on adherence to ethical principles. The readers and the public want to be assured that researchers followed the appropriate guidelines for issues such as human rights, animal welfare, compliance with the law, conflicts of interest, safety, health standards and so on. The handling of these ethical issues greatly impact the integrity of the research project and can affect whether or not the project receives funding. The manner in which research is conducted may also shape a community’s views, positive or negatively, toward the researcher, the research project, the topic, the research institution and even those providing funding.

Ethical issues are important in all types of research. Regardless of the type of research, the researcher should take into consideration both general research principles and those that are more specific to the type of research being conducted. General ethical principles important in all research are discussed in detail in the Resource Links. However, there are several important key ethical issues that should be considered when conducting survey research.  In survey research, ethical principles are primarily centered on protecting research participants (the respondents) and the guiding foundation of “do no harm”. Following is a list of core ethical principles that are important in survey research:

  • Respect for persons – Respect the autonomy, decision-making and dignity of participants.
  • Beneficence – Minimizing the risks (physically, psychologically and socially) and maximizing the benefits to research participants.
  • Justice – Participants should be selected from groups of people whom the research may benefit.
  • Respect for communities – Protect and respect the values and interests of the community as a whole and protect the community from harm.

To address these considerations and other issues related to using human subjects, most institutions and organizations have developed an Institutional Review Board (IRB). An IRB is a panel of people who help to ensure the safety of human subjects in research and who assist in making sure that human rights are not violated. They review the research methodology in grant proposals to assure that ethical practices are being utilized. The use of an IRB also helps to protect the institution and the researchers against potential legal implications from any behavior that may be deemed unethical.

Examples of some of these issues include voluntary participation and informed consent. These principles are followed to guarantee that all respondents are choosing to participate in the survey of their own free will and that they have been fully informed regarding the procedures of the research project and any potential risks. This is typically not a problem in survey research because a cover letter or introductory statement is used to introduce the survey and provide information regarding the purpose, intent, motivation, sponsoring organizations, potential use of data, and methods of data collection. Issues of confidentiality are also typically covered in this introduction. Therefore, the potential respondent is fully informed prior to completing the survey.   Potential participants also must be competent to make a decision regarding participation and must be free from any coercion. Responding to Minimthe survey should be completely voluntary and the respondent is consenting to be part of the research project by completing the survey.

Ethical standards also protect the confidentiality and anonymity of the subjects. This is the primary ethical issue in survey research, especially if the survey contains sensitive questions. Researchers should not share information between participants and should have procedures in place to protect the data and names of participants. Only research personnel should have access to the data and any identifying information and this access should be limited to only what is necessary for the project. If the researcher plans to follow up with reminders or additional surveys at a later date, true anonymity may not be possible. However, if possible, as in the case of a one-time telephone survey regarding political beliefs, identifying information should not even be recorded. Using tools such as encryption technology for internet surveys and numbering of respondent data can help to reduce possible confidentiality breaches.

Following is a list of tips and best practices that help address many of the ethical concerns discussed in this module:

  • Use self-addressed, stamped envelopes for returning mail surveys to avoid identifiable information.
  • Require staff to sign a pledge of confidentiality.
  • Train staff on appropriate use of data and ethical concerns.
  • Use the information collected only for the intended purpose of the study.
  • Avoid undue intrusion. Do not collect data that has already been collected.
  • Do not harass or repeatedly ask the members of the sample to respond. Encouragement participation in a positive, non-threatening way.
  • Be honest with the potential respondents regarding all aspects of the project.
  • Consider the sensitivity of the information during collection. For example, teachers in a classroom should not collect the teaching evaluations for their own class.
  • Be clear and concise in the introduction so that respondents are fully informed.
  • Be aware of cultural and social differences relating to the topic of the project and wording of questions.
  • Obtain the consent of a parent or guardian before collecting survey information from minors.


Suggested Readings:

  • Aday, L. A., & Cornelius, L. J. (2011). Designing and conducting health surveys: a comprehensive guide. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Blair, J., Czaja, R. F., & Blair, E. A. (2013). Designing surveys: A guide to decisions and procedures. Sage Publications.
  • Dillman, D. A. (2011). Mail and Internet surveys: The tailored design method--2007 Update with new Internet, visual, and mixed-mode guide. John Wiley & Sons.
  • Fowler Jr, F. J. (2013). Survey research methods. Sage publications.
  • Kelley, K., Clark, B., Brown, V., & Sitzia, J. (2003). Good practice in the conduct and reporting of survey research. International Journal for Quality in Health Care, 15(3), 261-266.
  • Schmidt, W. C. (1997). World-Wide Web survey research: Benefits, potential problems, and solutions. Behavior Research Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 29(2), 274-279.
  • Singleton Jr, R. A., Straits, B. C., & Straits, M. M. (1993). Approaches to social research . Oxford University Press.
  • Thomas, S. J. (1999). Designing Surveys That Work! A Step-by-Step Guide. Corwin Press, Inc.

Resource Links:

Code of Standards and Ethics for Survey Research – This PDF is a comprehensive guide to ethical issues surrounding survey research.

Ethical Considerations in Surveys – The resource linked here describes ethical concerns related to surveys in detail, with an emphasis on cultural and social issues.

Principles of Research Ethics – The following link describes basic ethical considerations for any research project involving human subjects.

What is an IRB and its Purpose? - What does IRB stand for? What is the purpose of an IRB and how does a researcher know when they need to use it?

What is Ethics in Research & Why is it Important - Ethical concerns must also be considered when designing a research project. The following website discusses common codes and policies regarding ethics in research.

Ethical Issues in Conducting Research – The following link is PDF that offers a comprehensive discussion of ethical issues in conducting research.

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