As part of my university wide role as Chair of Research Ethics I am increasingly facing questions about ethical dilemmas in digital research, some of which I thought I’d share in my next 2 or 3 blog posts. So to kick off I am starting with issues around participant recruitment platforms and crowd working.
Accessing research participants for any primary research is undoubtedly getting harder and response rates are falling fast! Digital technologies can play a role in alleviating this but care needs to be taken. The first issue which I have been grappling with is participant recruitment and the use of third party platforms through which to either recruit participants and or gather research data through, such as online research questionnaires. These are now plentiful across all subject disciplines and are based on three business models.
1) A research institute or university platform designed to facilitate research, which may have open or closed access and usually requires an university email address (e.g.www.callforparticipants.com)
2) A spin off from number one type which has been developed as a small business such as the Oxford University Software incubator firm (e.g.www.prolific.com)
3) A purely commercial platform aimed at academic research which claim to be approved by university ethics committees or IRBs (Institution Research or Review Boards in the USA) (e.g. www.socialsci.com)
These various models become more complicated when you unpick their various payment options. Some are entirely free, some are free to upload your questionnaire but each response costs the researcher money or the respondent benefits through a reward system, points for questionnaire completion which equals discount vouchers etc. Another type charges a fee to post your research and also charges per completion of questionnaire. A further variation is the fremium model, sign up for a basic free version but subscribe for the useful version such as www.socialsci.com. Many use Paypal as the payment intermediary which, for some universities, causes concern in the finance department. Furthermore some UK universities are concerned about the storage of the research data on these platforms, their stability and the security of the data. Various other quality and ethical issues arise from these platforms. Very few are explicit about which, if any, research organisations ethics policy they comply with such as ESOMAR, MRS, AoIR etc. The pool of participants who sign up to participate on these platforms are highly self-limiting, and are unlikely to be representative of the desired target sample – unless you are looking for students or retiree silver surfers. Additionally, some platforms offer significant cash incentives to people who refer participants on to the site.
At a whole other level is Amazon’s Mechanical Turk operation (Mturk). This ‘job completion’ platform works on the basis that activities which need completing are posted to this internet marketplace by organisations, people can then browse and complete these tasks for payment or Amazon gift vouchers (depending on which country the workers are located in). Third party organisations have become involved whereby workers are contracted to the third party to complete multiple different Mturk activities and the third party retains most of the payment for the completion. Mturk is being used by academic researchers for certain types of studies, including structured questionnaires. Academic journal editors have very differing views on the appropriateness of using this platform, some regard this as a legitimate tool in the digital economy, others see it as a flawed approach with the potential for becoming embroiled in digital sweatshops. Further discussion on crowdworking and the broader ethical implications can be found at
Mturk raises multiple ethical issues in the research context which are worth highlighting.
- Can we establish that those completing the task have been informed about the context of the research?
- Do those completing the task have free choice in whether or not to participate?
- To what extent is it necessary to inform those participating about how the data will be used and also the outcome of the research?
- Can the level of anonymity required be guaranteed?
- How can researchers using Mturk as a data collection tool guard against fraud?
- Will there be fair payment to those completing the tasks, when will they be paid etc?
- Sampling frames may be very distorted and inaccurate or even unknown to the researchers.
I don’t profess to have the answers to these research focused ethical dilemmas regarding conducting research within a digitalised world but at least we should know what questions to ask of ourselves and what questions to share with our research students.