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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Informed consent including withdrawal and deception

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Open/close headingInformed consent

Informed consent with conventional onsite research methods involves treating the participants of social research with respect, using clearly easily understood language to inform them of the nature of the research, the time needed to be involved, the methods to be used and the use to be made of any findings, before gaining their consent to take part (cf Mann and Stewart 2000; Vujakovic and Bullard 2001). Any potential physical, economic or psychological risks (for example, distress, embarrassment, loss of esteem) must be explained and attempts made to mitigate against these. If this is not possible, the research should be abandoned for these risks should be no greater than those encountered in normal daily activity for the research participants. According to Matthews et al. (1988, 316) this should also involve 'cultural safety' (cf Dyck and Kearns 1995) '…whereby those taking part in a project should not feel threatened or challenged by the researcher who, through inadequate preparation, insensitivity or simple ignorance, may comment unwisely on implicit cultural, ethnic or religious beliefs.' Similarly, any benefits or compensation should be clearly explained, both to the individual and also in terms of a 'greater social good'. Particular care must be taken with informed consent if the research includes potential vulnerable individuals such as children. Permission must be obtained from parents or guardians for individuals under 18 years old. Gaining consent should never involve coercion. All participants should be made aware of the complaints procedure and be able to withdraw from the research at any point.

Clearly these principles should also apply in the online environment. Participants must be made fully aware of the purpose of the research project. Generally written information about the aims of the project, the roles of the participants and any potential risks should be provided, either as an email, on a dedicated website or bulletin board, or by conventional mail. If gaining consent virtually a consent form can be provided as an email attachment or on the website but getting the participants to sign it may not be straightforward. Ideally the consent form would be downloaded electronically and the signed form returned via surface mail or fax to the researcher. In practice this may discourage respondents so an alternative consists of including a tick box ('I accept') in an email that the respondent can return online to the researcher or on a web page that introduces the questionnaire or interview. Alternatively, participants could be emailed with a password which is then required in order to take part in the research. This strategy can also ameliorate problems with potential hackers. However, without written signed consent any project formally contravenes European data protection legislation (Mann and Stewart 2000, 49). Moreover, some concerns have been raised about verifying the identity of consenting participants in cyberspace. For example, it has been suggested that gaining informed consent online can be more problematic than for onsite research because it is potentially easier for participant to deceive the researcher, particularly regarding their age. In the virtual anonymous realm, how can the researcher verify the participants' identity? In practice, however, according Hewson et al. (2003, 52), this type of fraudulence is both rare and easily detected. Moreover, these issues are also present in onsite research (Johns et al. 2004, 117). Particular care must be taken in gaining informed consent with minors and here there are several useful case studies to draw on (Bober 2004; Stern 2004). Overall, Bruckman (2002a) concludes that the manner in which consent is gained varies with the nature of the research project. She suggests that consent may be obtained electronically if the risks to subjects are low but otherwise consent must be obtained by a signature on paper returned by surface mail or fax.

The above points relate largely to gaining consent for online questionnaires. The situation with respect to online interviewing is more straightforward. When using chat facilities or conferencing facilities for virtual interviews, it is likely that the interviewees have been through some sort of process of self-selection and so informed consent can be gained during this process (as detailed above). Indeed, consent should not be left until the actual interview is going to occur as it requires some prior thought from the participants, the form may take some time to download and time is required for the researcher to receive the written signed form (if considered necessary).


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[Open/close heading]Withdrawal from the research

The ability to withdraw from the research at any time is a central tenet of informed consent. Withdrawal from an online questionnaire can be made available by locating an exit button next to the submit button. Withdrawal from a virtual interview can be achieved by locating a withdraw button available at all times in the chat window. But during virtual interviews sudden withdrawal of a participant can be met with confusion: does the interviewee no longer wish to participate? Is there a technical problem with internet connection? How should the interviewer follow this withdrawal up to find out? How many follow up emails to find out where the participant has gone would be considered spamming and intrusive? These are issues still to be decided upon. However, as Johns et al. (2004, 116) suggest, withdrawal is also significant in onsite research and in fact, a participant may feel freer to withdraw from an online project as there are fewer face-to-face social pressures.


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[Open/close heading]Deception

So while the issue of informed consent shows many similarities to onsite research, there also some differences in the virtual realm. This is a particularly thorny issue regarding not gaining informed consent for participant observation in the online environment. Deception involves researchers deliberately concealing the purpose of their study. In theory any research should not involve deception but in practice there is a contested debate over the issue. Some researchers, for example Denzin (1999), argue that postings on bulletin boards are public so there is no need to proceed without disclosing research activity while Glaser et al. (2002) contend that there are occasions when disclosing research activity would jeopardise the research aims. Similarly, Langer and Beckman (2005) argue for the legitimacy of covert internet research on sensitive topics, suggesting that existing ethical guidelines with regard to informed consent may need to be revised. Chen et al. (2004, 164) further argue for the importance of 'lurking' as a research act prior to gaining informed consent, in order to understand the topics and tone of exchanges in a mailing list or newsgroup before becoming involved. But although 'lurking' as socialisation into the online culture of a group was considered an important prerequisite for research, Chen et al. (2004, 164) also found that moderators and group leaders generally disapproved of lurking as a data collection method, so that observation without participation was generally considered unethical research practice. Eysenbach and Till (2001) support this view, contending that researchers 'lurking' in online communities might be perceived as intruders and may in fact damage some communities. They therefore suggest that the online research must tread very carefully here in order to respect their participants' lives. As Hine (personal communication, 2005) points out, the issue of deception is often not clear-cut. 'A researcher may set out to tell everyone concerned about their research, but as new participants join a forum and as existing participants forget, the research can effectively become more covert as time goes on. The issue can be particularly troubling in online forums with high turnover, like chat rooms.' Vigilance regarding informed consent is therefore essential throughout the research process.


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Open/close headingGuidelines on informed consent

Clearly informed consent is high on the ethics agenda for online researchers. Overall while there is still much debate, there is an emerging consensus regarding informed consent. Generally speaking for private or semi-private sources (mail, closed chat room) informed consent is considered essential whereas in open access forum (newsgroups, bulletin boards), it is suggested that informed consent may not always be essential. Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002, 5) recommend that the greater the acknowledged publicity of the venue, the less obligation there may be to protect individual privacy, confidentiality and the right to informed consent.


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[Open/close heading]Examples of good practice in gaining consent

Penny Cholmondeley (University of Alberta)

The study consisted of a survey evaluating the 'WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology)' Resource Network. An extensive project information page was provided covering key ethical issues. The survey itself was followed by a consent form and participants were requested to signal consent by selecting the submit button.

Project information page





Survey - Project Information

Study Purpose
Participation in this research project provides an opportunity to evaluate the usability of a resource network designed with the needs of women in science, engineering and technology (SET) related fields in mind. Information gained from this study will be used to improve the functions and features of the resource network, and may benefit participants by offering a better understanding of the professional networking advantages offered by a computer-mediated, web-based resource network. This study is being conducted by Penny Cholmondeley in partial fulfillment of the requirements of the University of Alberta's MACT graduate degree in collaboration with members of the WISEST research team. For more information, you may contact her directly using the following contact details at any time:

Project Coordinator:
Penny Cholmondeley BA
MACT Cohort 2002
University of Alberta
Phone: 604-736-0053
Email: pac3@ualberta.ca

Graduate Supervisor:
Helen M. Madill PhD CPsych
Professor & Graduate Programs Coordinator
Centre for Health Promotion Studies
Phone: 780-492-8661
Email: Helen.madill@ualberta.ca

Data Usage
Data from this study will be used to make improvements to the network and to inform future developments and additions. Survey responses will be used to evaluate how effective the resource network is in terms of usability and accessibility. A final report be presented to the WISEST membership and University community, and the results submitted for publication.

Participant Requirements
As a participant in this research project, you will be asked to evaluate the resource network via a secure online web-survey. Survey questions are designed to collect data on behaviours, attitudes, beliefs, opinions and expectations related to user interaction with the prototype resource network. You may complete the survey at any time during the study period which runs from May 6th through July 31st. It is expected that the survey will take 20 minutes of your time. Participation in this study is voluntary, and you may choose to withdraw at any time without any consequences or adverse effects by either clicking the “Clear Survey” button or simply closing your browser window.

How to Participate

  1. Visit the prototype resource network at: http://www.wisest.ualberta.ca/ua-wise.cfm Take as much or as little time as you feel necessary exploring the site and its components
  2. To participate in the online survey, visit: http://www.wisest.ualberta.ca/ nav02.cfm?nav02=35632&nav01=33374 Once the page loads, read the Online Consent Agreement. If you agree to participate, fill out the survey and click the "Submit Survey" button at the bottom of the page. You may choose to withdraw at any time without any consequences or adverse effects by either clicking the "Clear Survey" or closing your browser window. Clicking the "Submit Survey" button implies consent. Please note that the survey must be completed in one online session. To obtain a copy of the final project report generated from the findings of this study email Penny Cholmondeley at pac3@ualberta.ca

Responses to the web survey will be anonymous. Identifying information will include age, year and program of study. Individual participants will not be identifiable within the final report. Survey data will only be available to the 508 project researcher and members of the original research team. Records pertaining to the final report will be stored in WISEST’s locked storage facilities in Civil Engineering at the University of Alberta. Certain responses may be quoted in the final report, but participants will not be identified in any manner beyond selected field of interest and educational status. There are no known risks or adverse effects to participating in this study. Any personal information you provide will be used only for the purpose(s) for which it is collected, and not in any other way without your consent.

Risks and Benefits
Participants will have the opportunity to share their opinions and provide valuable feedback that will aid in any further developments of the resource network. Risks associated with completing the web based survey are minimal. The University of Alberta logs http requests to its server. These logs capture computer information, navigation and clickstream data. While we will not be tracking or recording information about specific individuals and their visit, please be aware that captured information identifies the following:

  1. The Internet domain and IP address from which you access the resource network;
  2. Browser type and operating system;
  3. Screen resolution;
  4. The date and time of access;
  5. Visited pages.

This information is used to determine the number of visitors to the resource network, and to monitor traffic patterns and the types of technology used by visitors. The University of Alberta Privacy Policy may be viewed in its entirety at http://www.uofaweb.ualberta.ca/privacy/

For site security purposes, the University of Alberta employs software programs to monitor network traffic that identifies unauthorized attempts to upload or change information, or otherwise cause damage. Except for authorized law enforcement investigations, no other attempts are made to identify individual users or their usage habits.

For questions or comments regarding this policy, or for additional information about the administration of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, contact the University of Alberta Information and Privacy Office at (780) 492-9419 or visit the Univesity’s FOIPP home page at http://www.ualberta.ca/FOIPP/

This study has been reviewed and approved by the Faculties of Education and Extension Research Ethics Board (REB) at the University of Alberta. Questions regarding participant rights and ethical conduct of research, contact the Chair of the REB using the following contact information:

Dr. Marco Adria
Associate Professor & Graduate Program Coodinator, Faculty of Extension
University Extension Centre
Edmonton, AB T6G 2T4
Phone: 780-492-2254
Fax: 780-492-1857/9439
Email: marco.adria@ualberta.ca

Consent form

Online Consent Agreement for Research Participation

By selecting the "Submit Survey" button, I hereby give my consent to participate as a subject in the survey entitled Design and Usability Evaluation of a Web-based Resource Network. I acknowledge that I have read the Project Information [http://www.wisest.ualberta.ca/survey.cfm] page and am aware that I am free not to participate and to withdraw from the project at anytime without penalty should I so choose. I also acknowledge that I am of the age of majority. Any personal information provided via this web survey is collected in compliance with the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy (FOIP) Act. The use and disclosure of your personal information is limited by the privacy protection provisions of the FOIP Act. For further information, contact: FOIPP Officer, Faculty of Extension, University Extension Centre University of Alberta, Edmonton , AB T6G 2T4 , Phone (780) 492-5047

There is no risk, threat or harm to participants. Data and other information related to participants will only be available to the 508 project researcher and members of the original research team. The University of Alberta takes the confidentiality and privacy of personal information very seriously. Various measures have been taken to protect the site and your privacy. Web applications deployed by the University use encryption technology and security procedures to protect your personal information. Information will not be used by WISEST or UA-WiSE for recruitment or solicitation purposes.

If you choose not to participate, select the "Clear Survey" or the "Refresh" button on your browser, or simply close this browser window and you will be withdrawn. Should you agree to participate and then choose to withdraw once you have begun the survey, you may exit either by clicking the exit button at the top of the page, hitting the "Clear Survey" button or by closing your browser window. This page may be printed for your records by using the print command function on your web browser. If you would prefer to submit your survey in another format, or have any other questions to direct to the research team, contact Penny Cholmondeley at pac3@ualberta.ca or by phone at 604-736-0053.

To submit your survey, click "Submit Survey"

To clear the survey or withdraw your consent, click "Clear Survey" 


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