It is important to design a research project that causes no harm to your subjects. The following information provides some guidelines for conducting an ethical survey. For more detailed information, please consult with one of the campus Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) or contact the Office of Institutional Research.

Ethical survey research requires that:

  • Participation is voluntary and free from coercion or undue influence.
  • Participants can skip any questions they would prefer not to answer and can withdraw from a survey at any time without penalty.
  • Researchers attempt to minimize the risk of harm to and sources of discomfort for respondents.
  • Researchers use a high quality survey instrument.
  • Researchers minimize the burden placed on respondents by minimizing the length of a survey.
  • Researchers are knowledgeable about research ethics and receive ethics training.
  • Respondents provide informed consent.
  • Surveys undergo IRB review or receive exemption from review. (Only an IRB can determine that a survey is exempt from review.)

Where can I receive ethics training?

Macalester has partnered with the Collaborative Institutional Training Initiative (CITI) Program at the University of Miami to provide online ethics training for students, faculty, and staff. All students, faculty, and staff conducting surveys are encouraged to complete the 4-module “Survey Researchers” course (selected in Step 7 of the registration process).

How do I make sure respondents are providing informed consent?

It is important that respondents are informed about the survey and that they voluntarily consent to participate. This is usually accomplished by having respondents read a short description of the survey and then indicate consent.

Respondents should receive the following information:

  • Who is conducting the survey.
  • The purpose of the study.
  • Approximately how long the survey will take.
  • Why they were chosen for the survey.
  • The types of questions they will be asked.
  • The voluntary nature of their participation.
  • That they can skip any questions they prefer not to answer and withdraw from the study at anytime without penalty.
  • Potential sources of discomfort such as becoming upset about sensitive questions (e.g., questions about sexual behavior) and information about the campus or community resources that can help them with this discomfort (e.g., contact information for the Health and Wellness Center).
  • How the data will be used.
  • Whether responses will be anonymous, confidential, or neither.
  • Contact information for the researcher (or for student researchers, their faculty mentor) in case respondents have any questions.

To enable respondents to provide consent for an online survey, the survey should be programmed so the respondent must click on a button or type in a response indicating that they have read the consent information, that they are 18 years of age or older, and agree to participate in the survey. Only after clicking the button, should respondents see the survey questions.

What are some of the potential risks for a survey and how can I minimize them?

One important set of risks includes the breach of confidentiality and the disclosure of sensitive information. For example, the disclosure of identifiable responses about illegal or stigmatized behavior (e.g., drug use or sexual practices) could result in damage to a person’s reputation, could negatively affect their present or future employment, or even result in legal consequences. To minimize these risks, researchers need to take extra precautions to ensure that responses to sensitive questions are anonymous or confidential. Additionally, respondents need to be informed about this risk, and the steps taken to minimize it. Our campus IRBs will provide advice about whether a survey should be fully anonymous, and the Office of Institutional Research can help you make sure that anonymity and confidentiality are appropriately protected.

When surveys contain sensitive questions, it is not appropriate to provide incentives (e.g., gift cards or other rewards) for completing the survey. Doing so may unduly influence a potential respondent to complete a survey even though it contains questions that make them uncomfortable.

How can I protect respondents’ anonymity and confidentiality?

Many surveys aim to be either anonymous or confidential. Anonymous surveys record no information (e.g., names, IDs, or IP addresses) that could be used to associate a response with an individual. Confidential surveys record information that could be used to identify individual (such as names or ID numbers), but this information is not shared with people outside of the research team and is never included in reported results. If you plan to collect anonymous data online, it is important to make sure that you have set up your survey tool (e.g., Qualtrics, Survey Monkey, Google Docs) in such a way that it does not collect identifying information.

If you plan to collect confidential data, it is important to have a data security plan. A data security plan might include removing identifying information (e.g. names, email addresses, IP addresses) once data has been collected, securing any documents that provide a link between personally identifying information and de­identified data, storing results on a password protected computer, physically securing both paper and electronic survey results, and ensuring that any data backups are also stored in a secure location. Institutional Research can help you set up such a plan.

It is also important to report results in such a way that individual respondents can not be identified. Because we are a small school, information like race and major could uniquely identify an individual. For example, in a given year, there may only be one Classics major of a particular race or gender, so it would not be appropriate to list the average responses of Classic majors by race or gender in your results. Usually researchers do not report summary statistics for a group if there are fewer than 5 people that fall into a given category.

Macalester IRB
Psychology Department IRB
CITI Ethics Training for Survey Researchers
( In Step 7 of CITI registration, be sure to sign-up for the “Survey Researchers” course.)