Surveys: Ethical Issues Introduction

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Surveys: Ethical Issues


Not all surveys require ethical review; a simple satisfaction survey is not normally seen as research so need not be reviewed by a research ethics committee (REC). The essential issue is concerned with underlying intention: if the intention is evaluation of a service or product and there is no experimentation, e.g. a trial involving two or more research arms each receiving different products or services, then no review is necessary. Some researchers will still seek ethical review in the aforementioned circumstances; this is usually because they intend to publish results in a peer reviewed journal which demands ethical review. This situation is rare, largely because simple satisfaction surveys are not normally worth publishing beyond the commissioners of the survey and its respondents. Research surveys require ethical review; typically researchers seek new knowledge arising from the results of the survey.

Survey Media

Online surveys using a variety of software are most frequently deployed. The software is variable in its capacity to ensure an anonymous response with assured confidentiality. A researcher could, in theory, make a concerted effort to find the identity of the respondent using information such as IP address so it might not be strictly true to state that the survey is completely anonymous. It is wise to add a statement such as:

Whilst it might be technically possible to attempt to establish the identity of any individual respondent, please be assured that the researcher has no intention of doing so.


If a survey is particularly sensitive it is best practice to send potential participants an invitation letter securing their consent to receive the survey instrument; this might entail provision of a written information sheet and consent form. In most cases it is not normal to seek formal written consent, indeed given that most surveys are completed anonymously, written consent will have the paradoxical effect of compromising anonymity. The usual position is that a positive response from a respondent is, in itself, evidence of consent.


Participation should always be on the basis of potential respondents being adequately informed about the intended research. A formal information sheet is not normally necessary; information can be included in a simple invitation paragraph at the beginning of the survey instrument. This information can be based on the main components of a formal information sheet.

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