Ethics in Questionnaires

by Eryn Travis ; Updated September 26, 2017
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Researchers use questionnaire-based tools, such as surveys or interviews, to collect data about beliefs, attitudes, opinions, thoughts and behaviors. Questionnaire-based research can be found in many fields, including medicine, politics, marketing and social research. One advantage of questionnaire-based research is that it is often an inexpensive tool to gather data from a large population. Meeting ethics standards ensures researchers act in good faith and protects the integrity of the resulting data.

Questionaire Design

Questionnaire ethics begin with design. Research questions should be clear and objective. Leading questions, which prompt an answer through word choice or an inadequate range of response, should be omitted. For example, while it's tempting to put a spin on some questions in an attempt to generate respondent goodwill, questions such as "Don't you agree that our office is a great place to work?" violate good faith and result in compromised data. Surveys and interviews should not contain hypothetical questions or those designed to embarrass respondents.

Informed Consent

Respondents cannot be tricked or forced into participating into questionnaire-based research. Respondents should be told the nature and purpose of the research and any anticipated drawbacks of participation. In addition, explanations must be given in audience-appropriate language. In other words, the meaning of the research can not be hidden behind technical explanations or jargon. Participants must be allowed to ask questions, and, if they choose, to quit the study.

Confidentiality

If confidentiality is promised to survey respondents, it must be protected. Researchers can not fold under pressure or incentives from clients to release the names, contact or identifying information of survey respondents. In addition, no matter how interesting the results, researchers should not talk about the data with friends or family members. Data from one project may not be sold to another organization.

Debriefing

While questionnaire-based research does not usually carry the same psychological or physical risks to participants as experimental research, debriefing is critical in case participation has harmed a respondent. For example, a survey about breast cancer given to a population awaiting a breast cancer diagnosis had adverse effects for several participants, according to the Journal of Medical Ethics. The study found that participating in the survey increased anxiety and unrealistic positive expectations for some of the respondents. As such, ethical research requires a debriefing session to answer participant questions prompted by the questionnaire or to provide support for anyone negatively impacted by participation.

About the Author

Eryn Travis has over 15 years of freelance-writing experience. She has written for "Aviation News Today" and was the managing producer and host for the cable TV news show of the same name. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Maryland and is finishing up a master's degree in communication studies from West Chester University.

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