Guidelines: Surveys and Research in an Online Environment

1. Surveys in an online environment

Researchers conducting surveys on-line must obtain consent from the participants. Recognizing that obtaining a signature is not feasible; researchers are advised that consent must be obtained in an alternate manner. Implied consent, meaning that participants do not explicitly consent to participate by signature or by virtue of completing the survey is NOT permitted as per TCPS guidelines.

Researchers should:
a) Complete and submit the relevant protocol form;
b) Create a consent document including all the necessary elements of consent and include a mechanism by which participants can consent explicitly. Most commonly this can be achieved by including a “checkbox” function whereby participants can click on the box indicating they agree to participate or the box which indicates that they do not agree to participate.

NOTE: Should a researcher be offering inducements for those participating in on-line surveys, it should be noted that data-mining companies often search for such inducements and may post the surveys to such sites as “Fatwallet” or “Freestuff” which may compromise the survey. Researchers should be mindful of this potentiality when designing and posting the survey.

2. Research in an online environment

Researchers which seek to collect data via interactions on-line within or observations of chatrooms and other online communities may be required to obtain consent and inform the participant of the researchers’’ activities. Research ethics review requirements in theses contexts are quite complex and are best addressed on a case-by-case basis. Researchers are advised to contact ORE for advice on the necessity for and/or context of an ethics protocol prior to commencement of research activities.

In general, research will be subject to review if the site or room to be accessed is not “public”. This means if registration is required or there is some form of access agreement with subsequent conditions required to enter the site then the site/room/on line environment cannot be construed to be public and ethics review and informed consent will be required. If the site, room, group etc can reasonably be assumed to be public then ethics review is not required. As per the TCPS, information that is publicly available is not subject to ethics review. Thus, postings made to such an environment can be considered to be public information much like letters to the editor or comments made on public call in show and are therefore not subject to ethics review or require informed consent of the persons’ who have supplied the information.

For those instances where ethics review is required, Researchers should:

  1. Complete the relevant protocol form. Include a detailed description of how participants’ will be informed of the research activity
  2. Include a detailed description of how consent will be obtained.