Guidelines for Online Surveys and Social Media

If you are conducting an online survey, please create your survey in the online platform (please use Pacific University's subscription to Qualtrics) prior to submitting your proposal to the IRB. When you submit your proposal, please include (a) a link to the live survey and (b) a PDF copy of the online survey for the IRB files. The IRB must be able to verify that the informed consent language and process are presented appropriately in the online environment.

Note: All online survey platforms will allow you to print or generate a PDF copy of the online survey. If you have questions about how to do this, please contact the IRB.

If you are conducting an online survey, please review these guidelines and ensure that:

  • If your survey is intended to be anonymous, your survey tool is not collecting Internet Protocol (IP) information from respondents.
  • You clearly indicate in your proposal who has access to the account on which the survey instrument is hosted.
  • If an incentive (e.g., gift card drawing) is used with an otherwise anonymous survey, that participant contact information is gathered outside of the primary data collection instrument (i.e., via email or through a second survey linked to the first). 

Further elaboration on this issues is provided below.

Anonymity in Online Survey Research

It is important to understand when a survey is truly anonymous and when it is confidential. In order for participation in an online survey to be considered truly anonymous, these items must be true:

  • The survey tool is configured to not collection IP address information from participants
  • No individually identifiable information (e.g., name, birth date, identification numbers, mailing address, email address, etc.) is being collected as part of the survey instrument or a related prize drawing.
  • No combination of indirect identifiers is being collected which would reasonably allow the investigator or anyone else to identify participants.

If you survey meets these criteria, it is anonymous, and you should submit the Request for Determination of IRB Jurisdiction form. Your study will likely not require full IRB review.

If, however, you choose to request participants' names, email addresses, or other contact information so that they may be entered into an optional prize drawing, your survey will not be considered anonymous by the IRB. If you collect this information, you should do so outside of your survey instrument. The best practice in this instance is to set up a second survey instrument to collect the contact information, and to link from your data collection survey to the optional drawing survey. If you do this, you should state in your IRB proposal and in the informed consent language that:

Data collected is anonymous and cannot be associated with you, but participation in this study will be confidential, not anonymous, if you choose to provide your contact information for the purposes of entering the optional drawing.

Access to Online Survey Accounts

A critically important issue has come to the IRB's attention regarding the security of group online survey accounts (e.g., accounts belonging to the university, some programs and departments).

Everyone with access to such accounts is able to view and alter the surveys (and more significantly, the responses) of all other projects on that account. This is an obvious and very serious consideration for human subjects research. When using a group account, investigators cannot ensure participant privacy and the confidentiality of their responses, which are of paramount ethical importance. Understand that the IRB is not planning to develop a policy to prohibit the use of group accounts; however, the associated privacy limitations must be clearly disclosed in all proposal materials and consent and/or permission forms.

The ideal solution is to create an individual accounts for each researcher and/or study and vigorously regulate who has access to the account.

If investigators choose to use a shared survey account for conducting a human subjects research project, the following statement should be included in the research proposal and informed consent materials:

The security of information transmitted through the internet cannot be guaranteed. Furthermore, this survey is administered through a group [enter the appropriate platform] account. Any individuals permitted to use this account, including [enter the appropriate individuals — administrators, staff, faculty, students, etc.], regardless of whether or not they are directly involved with this project, have unrestricted access to all aspects of the survey and the information gathered through it.

In the above statement, investigators also are encouraged to identify the number of people able to access the account and some description of who these individuals are (the research team, a whole department, etc.). (This list can be substituted for or added to the list in parentheses above).

The IRB also suggests, when applicable, that investigators consider conducting an anonymous (see above) survey, which would help alleviate concerns about participant privacy, as no identifiable information will be gathered.

Social Media

Broadly, social media is an internet-based mode of communication that allows users to interact with the medium (typically a website) and/or users of the medium. Social media encompasses social networking (e.g. Facebook and Twitter), social photo and video platforms (e.g. Shutterfly and YouTube), and interactive wesites. Social media also includes text messages, podcasts (in which the PI promotes the research project), etc. If you are unsure whether or not a certain form of communication constitutes recruitment, contact the IRB. All social media communications are subject to IRB review, specifically in relation to recruitment, though there are additional instances in which the IRB would need to review social media use. Please include scripts of all social media communications in your proposal. Be sure to list Social Media on the Recruitment Materials List in the IRB Submission Guidance document.