Online research in 2023-2024 can take a variety of diverse forms. At Seattle University, the most commonly deployed online research tool currently is the Qualtrics survey, so we provide the most in-depth detail on the methods, data, and protocols associated with this.
Other potential projects, however, proliferate. Generally speaking, the same regulations and protections of human subjects (respect for persons and informed consent, beneficence and a minimization of risk to participants, and justice and equity) that govern in-person research can also be translated to online modalities.
Below, we provide a few examples of current online research, as well as some initial questions and considerations for the researcher. None of these are comprehensive, in part because the interwebs are vast and the modalities are constantly changing. Please reach out to the IRB Office to discuss the specifics of your protocol in more depth.
Recruiting on Social Media and via Listservs
Ethnographic Research on a Gaming Platform or Another Virtual Platform
Interviewing and other Communications with Participants via App
Qualitative Research on a Social Media Platform
Researchers often turn to online surveys for quick, easy access to wide populations -- that require little expenditure. Researchers should, however, be prepared to encounter low response rates, missing questions, multiple responses, and survey fatigue. Not only do these factors impact the data quality, but the online environment can reflect population biases related to socioeconomic status, education level, and other individual backgrounds. Keeping in mind that people will have access to varying internet speeds -- and will most likely be answering via smartphone -- researchers should assist participants by using brief, clear language; multiple screens with forward and back buttons; and simple, clean formatting.
The SU IRB encourages all SU affiliates to use its licensed Qualtrics Survey Research Suite instead of less-secure services such as Survey Monkey or Google Docs. If you choose to use the less-secure services, then you need to provide a compelling reason for doing so.
Researchers must clarify how participants will know about survey (e.g., posting on social media, listserv notifications, descriptions in MTurk-type services, flyers or email, etc.). If the survey is going to be embedded in another website, registration, or survey process, then you need to carefully think through how to clarify this to potential participants. Given current concerns about malware, fake websites, and predatory advertising links, make certain that your survey -- especially if it is embedded in another website or sent out via listserv, includes very clear language about who you are, your connection with Seattle University, and how and where you and the IRB can be contacted.
If offering an incentive/token of gratitude (e.g., gift card drawing or $5 gift card for survey completion), researchers should obtain participant contact information outside of the main survey to separate any identifiers from survey responses. For example, a second, separate link at the end of the survey would collect participant emails for distributing the incentive/thank you. Researchers should store the email addresses separately and delete the file after disbursing any incentives.
Recruitment information must include very clear language on the following: that the survey is part of a research study, its inclusion/exclusion criteria, an approximate timeframe for completing the survey, and any payment/incentive information.
Informed consent information must occur on the opening screen before any survey questions, not via a link to a separate document or sent via email. While the consent information may be slightly condensed from a traditional signed consent document, it should contain all basic aspects of consent. Participants should actively acknowledge consent by clicking a statement such as "I do not consent to participate" (which then redirects them out of the survey site) or “By continuing to the survey, I acknowledge I am over 18 and I consent to participate.”
To uphold the principle of voluntary consent, researchers must ensure that the survey does not force any responses, so that participants may skip questions or freely click through the questions without answering. If the researcher needs to collect specific responses for methodological purposes, that should be explained in the informed consent, so that individuals may opt not to take the survey. For example, “To understand [fill in], we need to obtain certain information, so you may not skip all responses. But you should feel free to discontinue the survey if you wish not to answer.”
Go to IRB Forms and Templates for an informed consent template for online surveys.
Researchers cannot always guarantee secure data transmission; however, they can acknowledge this concern in the consent language and reassure participants about steps to heighten security, particularly with identifiable information and/or sensitive topics. In the IRB submission, researchers must explain plans for secure transmission and digital storage.
Qualtrics, for example, uses Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption for all transmitted data, but the researcher should indicate plans for downloading Qualtrics data to secure SU Cloud storage (OneDrive or Teams). Do not store data in Qualtrics.
In Qualtrics, turn off the feature to collect respondents’ Internet Protocol (IP) addresses (unless needed for the study, which must be clarified). Collecting IP addresses renders a study not anonymous because an IP address is traceable to a device and a location. Also, using personal/individual Qualtrics links for tracking participant responses also means a researcher cannot call a study “anonymous.”
Researchers should also explain how they intend to report the data. Will the data be aggregated or will there by any identifiers that, when combined, could reasonably identify/reidentify individuals to either the researcher or someone outside the research team?
Upon concluding data collection, faculty/staff/student researchers should download Qualtrics data to store securely within OneDrive or Teams, delete the relevant survey, and retain the data in accordance with the IRB-approved protocol. A similar method should be followed if the researchers use a different survey platform.
Students who use their own Qualtrics account to conduct online research must add faculty/staff advisers using the “collaboration” feature. Before graduation (after which the student’s Qualtrics account is turned off), the student should transfer any identifiable data to their adviser for storage according to the IRB-approved protocol. A similar method should be followed if students use a different survey platform.