Ethics Guidelines for Internet-Mediated Research and Bristol Online Survey

Elaine Watson

The University of Cumbria (UoC) endorses the use of an online survey tool called Bristol Online Survey (BOS), which is produced and run by Bristol University.  In BOS you can create, distribute and analyse survey data. It is a fantastic tool for students and academics alike, a few years ago we introduced an induction process for all students wishing to use BOS to ensure all surveys met ethical requirements.  For example, all surveys must include participant information, consent question, debrief information and contact information.  These all may sound obvious to any researcher, however in the relaxed and distanced world of the internet and internet based research these things can quite easily be overlooked.  The British Psychological Society (BPS) have recently issued new Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. As a team we needed to discuss the impact of these new guidelines on our use of internet research.  

The new BPS guidelines were an interesting read, yes quite!  They cemented the knowledge that we need to include the staple ethical requirements of any data collecting method in online surveys. Participants are participants and they need informing and protecting throughout the process, whether this is a face to face interview or thousands of miles removed on a link through a social media outlet.  It also made us think about the further complexity of internet surveys, data storage, and security.  The survey may be anonymous but the server might store an IP address alongside an online survey response which can be linked to an identifiable individual.  

In terms of consent and withdrawal on an internet based survey, can you just close the browser at any point should you wish to withdraw?  Do you know if the responses up to that point have been stored and could still be used? The new guidelines make the following suggestions:

  • To have a consent question at the start and end of your survey
  •  To have a withdrawal option at the bottom of each page
  •  In the consent question/participant information, include the minimum age participants must be to take part in the survey

What happens should the participant wish to withdraw after they have completed the survey?   A further suggestion would be to ask a question in your survey (ideally on the consent page), which asks them to input a memorable word or number. Should they wish to withdraw from the study at a later date, their data can be identified by them only and then removed.  

These are all matters which will now be added into our standard induction for all students who wish to use BOS as a data collecting tool.  There are still a couple of outstanding questions to look into though. One is the survey tool, and whether there are the security mechanisms to ensure anonymity.  I know it is fully compliant with all UK data protection laws but can you trace an IP address back to the survey?  The final matter for me to look into is, what happens if a participant withdraws half way through a survey, are those answers stored and used in analysis?  For now, a little more research and scrutinising is to be done. All said, BOS is a fantastic tool for collecting data, and I really enjoy using it and teaching our students how to use it too!

Elaine Watson is one of our Psychology Technicians, if you would like to contact her please email her on:


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