Mary’s helpful guide to soliciting research participation on the ‘net

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

In my years on the ‘net, I’ve seen any number of people want to interview others or get them to take surveys for everything from a short high school or undergraduate paper through to graduate research projects and books. And they so seldom manage to meet basic ethical guidelines for making sure they aren’t wasting their participants’ time at best or endangering them at worst. Hence this article.

In addition, this article may help research participants better assess requests: are researchers telling you what you need to know? Have they considered your interests as well as their desire to Find Something Out At All Costs?

Full disclosure: I am not a research ethics expert, I am simply a researcher helping you get the basics right. Please seek expert advice if you have any doubt about the safety or integrity of your research.

Why do I need to do this stuff?

Because you’re so often asking people sensitive stuff, that’s why!

Look, I have some sympathy for the “it’s just questions about something-seemingly-small!” myself. I ask people questions about their linguistic intuitions. “Which sentence reads better to you, A or B?” There’s nothing less fun than completing a 31 page ethics application to get approval to ask people about which sentences read better.

But look, all research, at best, takes up people’s time. You owe people something for that. In addition, quite a lot of the research people are recruiting for on the ‘net wants to get into harassment of women, political affiliations, sexual experiences, why people write slash. That kind of stuff? That kind of stuff in the wrong hands loses people jobs and relationships. You owe people serious, well thought out harm mitigation for that.

So, ethical research recruitment lets people know what they’re getting into, whether it is a boring half hour sharing linguistic intuitions, or sharing potentially damaging information with a reseracher.

The bare minimum

All researchers asking for participation should share this information:

  • Who are you?
  • Who do you work for or who commissioned this work, if not yourself?
  • How can I get in contact with you, and how can I get in contact with who you are working for?
  • What is the purpose of the research?
  • What is the status of the research? Is this sheer curiosity that made you whip up a survey in five minutes, or a pilot study, or the main game?
  • What kind of effort do you want from me? (Interviews versus surveys. Five minutes versus many hours. You get the idea. Tell me upfront what my time investment is.)
  • When you’re done, where can I see the results?
  • Will the results be made public and in what form? (A peer-reviewed article? A PhD thesis? A pop science book? On your blog?)

Some of this might be the sort of thing you want to put on a webpage you can link to, so you can leave short advertisements like “Hi, I’m looking for help with X, and thought readers here might want to help because of Y, if you need to know more, please see LINK.”

You;d be amazed how many people miss the “When you’re done, where can I see the results?” step. Even if they’re asking people for 20 hours of interviews or something like that. For anything but the most trivial investment of time, letting people read your results is the minimum reward required.

Also, results being made public can often be good: the subject’s work is contributing to the sum of human knowledge! So don’t consider this necessarily a bad thing in and of itself.

Institutional research

If you are doing research at the postgraduate, postdoctoral or faculty level, research using human subjects (and other animal subjects for that matter, but you aren’t likely to be recruiting them on blogs) requires ethics approval by an institution-level ethics committee in most institutions.

So, when soliciting participants for research that has ethics approval, provide the following info:

  • All the bare minimums plus
  • A statement citing your ethics approval in whatever manner is usual. Your committee probably has boilerplate. Typically this will name the institution, give a reference number for your experiment and provide contact details for the ethics committee.
  • If your ethics committee approved a recruitment advertisement, use it! If it’s long put it at the other end of a link if that’s OK with them.
  • If your ethics approval requires that you disclose a bunch of things, also state them or place them at your info link if allowed.

If your institutional research didn’t require ethics approval (some institutions might, for example, have a blanket policy covering low-risk things like linguistic intuition questionnaires) find whatever boilerplate they let you use instead, if there is any or say something sensible along the lines of “This questionnaire comes under the XYZ University Low Risk Experimentation Policy [link].”

Basically, if you are doing research on behalf of an employer state either that you have ethics approval, or if not, why not (eg, your institution has no committee).

No committee but doing something sensitive?

If you’re doing sensitive work outside the oversight of ethics committees, here’s the start of your checklist!

  • All the bare minimums plus
  • Are respondents going to be anonymised in your personal/researcher copy of the data? Are you stripping any associated names, IP addresses, email addresses and similar? If not, what are you keeping and why?
  • How are you storing the researcher copy of the data?
  • Who has access to the researcher copy of the data? (Yourself? Your boss? All of your boss’s present and future employees? The Internet?)
  • When do you plan to delete the researcher copy of the data, if ever?
  • Are respondents going to be anonymised in the published results? If not, what identifying information will you publish and why?
  • Can a respondent withdraw their participation and be deleted from your data or transcripts? How do they do it? How long do they have to do so?

There are all kinds of other factors that ethics committees would get you to look at, basically, what capacity for harm does your research have? How are you mitigating that harm? What risk to your participants is left?

Risks include: physical health risks; mental health risks (more common with online data gathering, eg, triggering questions); exposing people to relationship disruption or breakdown, or abuse (by, eg, asking them to discuss infidelity); exposing people to criminal prosecution (eg by asking them to discuss illegal drug use); exposing people to civil liability (eg by getting them to discuss breach of contract), exposing them to job loss; denying them the best treatment or resources (by, eg, giving preferential treatment to patients or students or employees who agree to take part in the research, thus harming others); and coercing participation in general. And there’s one question that frankly stands out to me as a member of the apparently rare species Lady on the ‘Net, which is “are you studying an over-studied population and if so, what benefit does this extra research have for them, as opposed to for you?”

One of the most obvious mitigation strategies is anonymity of your subjects in reports, and eventual data destruction of any private identifying data. But as you can see from the examples related to coerced participation, it isn’t the only strategy you might need. List your possible harms, list your mitigations, let the potential subjects decide if the research is worth it to them.


I wrote a similar post focussed on software development a few years back, in that case mainly focussed on “prove to your subjects that their participation is not a waste of their time.”

Sunday Spam: crepes and maple syrup

As just fed to my son, in fact.

The execution of Troy Davis and the death penalty

I donated to the Innocence Project and the (US) National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, for what it’s worth.

Fukushima Disaster: It’s Not Over Yet

The impact of both radiation and fear of radiation on Japanese society, although it feels a little shallow. I’d love to read this argument from the perspective of a Japanese person.

Debunking the Cul-de-Sac

Struggles to come up with anything nice to say about cul-de-sacs, frankly, unless you are in the business of selling either cars or fuel for them. Oh, they’re quieter. Other than that, cul-de-sacs suck.

Queen of the Kitchen

A Christmas-time fairy story by Karen Healey. So you know it’s got a tough-minded teen girl, New Zealand, and magic. Several of my favourite things.

Chemotherapy doesn’t work? Not so fast…

Science Based Medicine reviews the real position of chemotherapy. It works as the primary treatment for a fairly small number of cancers, it doesn’t work much at all for some cancers, and much of the time it is part of several treatments (radiotherapy, surgery).

On Feminism and Virtue

Sady Doyle reflects on the extent to which being a feminist makes you a better person: potentially not much.

The Great American Bubble Machine

Goldman Sachs: always there to turn a functioning market into a speculative bubble, and thence to profit. Highlights include 100 million people entering hunger in 2007 due to speculation on food and oil futures. This was via Tim O’Reilly, who went down to the Occupy Wall Street protests because even rich small-government types do (or ought to) have a beef against Wall Street.

Disability Culture meets Euthanasia Culture: Lessons from my cat

On the normalisation of euthanasia in animals, to the point where vets can’t advise on what death of natural causes is like, and its relationship to euthanisa in humans. I was thinking about this issue over the last few years, most recently after a vet euthenised my parents’ elderly pet horse after what my father, who works in the meat industry and has seen hundreds if not thousands of animals die—and some seriously negligent treatment of animals for that matter—described as the worst suffering he’d ever seen. So, I don’t have a lot to say about Tony’s death, but it did make me think about how animals die.

Certificates and “authorities”

The certificates that identify websites for secure web browsing, that is. Basically, it’s a mess. There are about 400 organisations that are trusted by browsers to sign the identities of secure websites, they get hacked quite a bit, and some of them are careless at best about security.

Movin’ Meat: Instinct vs Expertise

An ER doctor puzzles over why a neurosurgeon isn’t taking a certain fracture seriously. Unlike a lot of stuff I link here, this is less about systemic concerns and more just an interesting story.

The iPad, the Kindle, and the future of books

From early last year, more in my attempt to understand publisher perspectives on ebooks. I’m in an interesting place on this, reading both in the open source/copyright reform world which tends to accept and embrace the tendency of the sale value of intellectual property to fall to zero or nearly so once distribution is cheap (see for example Copyfight on ebook prices rising), and librarians, publishers and authors who aren’t so hot on that happening to books.

Anyway, now I know what the agency model is.

Do We Need A New Nirvana? Does Modern Music Suck?

Joel Connolly (my brother-in-law, and a band manager) thinks audiences need to wise up to existing awesome music, basically. It’s a longer version of what he said to Bernard Zuel early in the month.

Above reproach: why do we never question fidelity?

I like this style of inquiry. Basically, the question is that everyone agrees that infidelity (not having multiple partners, but having multiple partners without being honest about it) is unethical. But should we? Is this sometimes part of oppression?

Every so often, asking these questions of human relationships is important. (Note that the writer, also, doesn’t have an answer.)

Increasing Barriers to College Attendance Through ‘Optional’ Extracurriculars

Something I’ve wondered about for ages, as Australian universities, which largely admit students based on pure academic performance, are constantly criticised for not moving to the US model, which takes into account the whole person, yadda yadda. As long as the whole person has time in their life for charity work, sports teams, student politics etc. To me, US college applications often sound like high schoolers applying for a Rhodes scholarship straight out of school. Not that raw exam scores don’t incorporate endless privilege, but extracurriculars do not in any way ameliorate that.

Quick hit: NSW Coalition drops active anti-ethics classes policy

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Coalition folds in ethics class battle:

THE state opposition has dumped its promise to remove ethics classes from NSW public schools if it is elected, as 57 schools prepare to start teaching the new course within weeks…

In November the opposition education spokesman, Adrian Piccoli, said a Coalition government would remove the classes being offered in schools as an alternative to special religious education, or scripture classes… ”We voted against the legislation, so once the legislation passed through the Parliament there was a recognition that ethics classes are going to be in place,” he said. ”The view was it has been legislated and we are going to allow them to continue. The battle over ethics classes is finished and we will be part of it.”

Note to commenters: Hoyden has had fairly long discussions of the ethics classes before, see related posts below. Many commenters here (of course, not all) would probably ultimately rather see SRE abolished entirely and religious education designed for adherents or potential converts conducted privately out of school hours, and ethics and non-adherent religious studies treated as a regular part of the curriculum (as they already are to some extent).

Lauredhel had some interest comments on my last thread:

If anyone reading knows a child attending the ethics classes starting this term, it would be interesting to hear their experiences. (Privacy concerns permitting of course.)

Ethics classes to be offered in SRE time in NSW

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

the logo for the NSW Government Dept of Education and Training over a picture of a highway sign that reads "Ethics"Ethics classes in special religious education time (SRE) are almost certainly going ahead in NSW, in 2011 at least.

Background: Special Religious Education (SRE) is a period of time, up to an average of one hour per week, during which students at public (government) schools receive instruction in religion from volunteer representatives of that religion. The parents of the child nominate which religion of those offered locally (in some but not all schools, this will be limited to Christian denominations, here’s the full list of approved providers). They can also opt to withdraw their child from SRE entirely, but if they do so the school can provide supervision but not alternative lessons:

3. Schools are to support SRE by ensuring that no formal lessons or scheduled school activities occur during time set aside for SRE. Such activities may create conflict of choice for some parents and for some students attending SRE.

10. In times set aside for SRE, students not attending are to be separated from SRE classes.

11. Schools are to provide appropriate care and supervision at school for students not attending SRE. This may involve students in other activities such as completing homework, reading and private study. These activities should neither compete with SRE nor be alternative lessons in the subjects within the curriculum or other areas, such as, ethics, values, civics or general religious education. When insufficient teachers or accommodation are available, the school’s policy on minimal supervision will operate.

14. The principal retains an overall supervision responsibility for the conduct of SRE. Class teachers are not required to attend SRE classes, but may, with the agreement of the SRE teacher, assist or remain in the classroom.

An ethics alternative in SRE time was developed by the St James Ethics Centre. Their FAQs may be useful in understanding more about their classes and the background.

The report (PDF, 0.8MB) into the trial classes is available, and here’s some material from its introduction:

The findings of the evaluation demonstrate the effectiveness of the course in relation to improving students’ understanding and skills in ethical decision making, and the overall appropriateness of the course content, activities and resources and of the associated training. The evaluation also points to the success of the organisational model employed by the St James Ethics Centre, and considers the viability of this model for wider implementation of the course in NSW government schools…

The call for a secular ethics-based complement to SRE in NSW schools is not without precedent, and there is evidence here that secular ethics and SRE can exist respectfully side by side. In this evaluation an attempt has been made to assess the extent to which the ten week ethics pilot provides an appropriate model for an ethics-based complement to scripture, and to do so on the basis of rational argument and empirical evidence. Further decisions rest with the Minister.

There’s been some back and forth since:

  1. The NSW ALP government announced that rollout to schools would commence from 2011, starting with classes offered to Years 5 and 6;
  2. The Liberal opposition, which will almost certainly be elected to government in March 2011, announced that they would reverse this and withdraw classes if elected.
  3. The government announced that the ethics offering would be put in legislation, which will be difficult for the post-March government to reverse without support of minor parties in the state upper house.

My interest in this is long term: I have one child, and he’s a baby. But I am an atheist, and likely under the current system I would opt him out of SRE unless he specifically asked otherwise, and under the new system I would place him in the ethics classes unless he specifically asked otherwise.

I would, in fact, like him to be familiar with the history and teachings of the major religions in Australia. My own schooling was quite indifferent on that front. I attended Catholic primary and high schools, which do not have the SRE system: all students participate in scheduled classroom lessons on Roman Catholic beliefs. (In my experiences, not very robustly taught itself: the doctrinal positions opposing use of contraception came as a considerable surprise to my fifteen year old peers. “Bullshit, Miss.”) The secular state curriculum also seemed to lack much insight into religion or religious influences on culture and politics (and vice versa). The major exception was the Studies of Religion unit in Stage 6 (Years 11 and 12, the final two years); at my school we were offered a choice between a school developed religion course which would not count for university entrance, or the Studies of Religion course, which did. (Stage 6 has been considerably revised since, but this course is still available and you can see the present syllabus.) I attended Catholic schools for thirteen years without hearing about the split of the Democratic Labor Party from the ALP in 1955, for example. The ethics classes aren’t a cure-all for that hole in the curriculum, but they are not intended to be, nor should they be: that kind of material should be offered in the standard curriculum.

What do you think? If you have a child will you or would you have them attend the ethics option in SRE time? Will you or would you volunteer to be an instructor? (The website that is being built at has contact details for would-be volunteers.) I am considering volunteering in 2012 assuming that the classes remain in place and that work and parenting commitments don’t make it impossible (as they likely will.)

Sydney University colleges: after “Define Statutory”

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Last year, it was revealed that the residents of St Paul’s College at the University of Sydney, who had formed a “Define Statutory” Facebook page that described itself as “pro-rape, anti-consent”. There was a lot of heat around it, and initially a lot of words and not a lot of action. Lauredhel and I wrote about it here last year (University colleges: nurturing a rape culture, More on St Paul’s College “Define Statutory” facebook page).

I’ve been meaning to find out what happened next for ages. Here’s what seems to have happened.

In February 2010, the University Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence announced that the sexual harassment and discrimination policy was being extended to all student residences. (The colleges’ residents are almost always enrolled students of the University, but the colleges are independent institutions.):

[Spence] said his handling of the website scandal… had been hampered by the old policy, which excluded the legally independent colleges, leaving them free to conduct their own investigations without guarantees of an independent inquiry.

”It is fair to say our old harassment policy gave us no teeth as far as the colleges were concerned,” Dr Spence said. ”However, under the new system we definitively would be able to discipline those concerned.”

The vice-chancellor’s office has called for the residential colleges to review their sexual harassment and assault policies as well as student initiations and unofficial activities.

In an email on Tuesday [February 23], Dr Spence told all students that they ”had the right to be treated with dignity and respect, irrespective of their background, beliefs or culture”.

Heath Gilmore and Ruth Pollard, Sydney University expands sex-assault policy, The Sydney Morning Herald, February 25 2010

The new policy (dated 11 February) is here.

Ruth Pollard, who wrote the Herald‘s original stories, wrote in February that she regarded St Paul’s response as continuing to be highly unsatisfactory, especially in light of the administrations of the other colleges being willing to criticise their own culture:

We received another email from Dr [Ivan] Head [warden of St Paul’s], describing St Paul’s as ”one of the most exciting and stimulating places to live, brilliantly in the heart of the university, fully engaged with every aspect of student life, punching above its weight, moderated by wise and astute scholars”.

Oh yes, and all forms of sexual assault are abhorrent.

Since then, Dr Head says there has been an investigation which included ”interviews with the [Facebook] site administrator who is a former college resident, and a small number of current college residents who had agreed to become members of the site”, but he refused to release the results of the inquiry.

Ruth Pollard, Time to wake up: St Paul’s must stamp out its misogynist culture, The Sydney Morning Herald, February 25 2010

I am not surprised to find though, that there are reports that St Paul’s residents have closed ranks around their college:

First, some history. In 1977, a group of St Paul’s College students at Sydney University held an awards ceremony in which a student who raped a woman was applauded for committing “the animal act of the year”. Then last year St Paul’s made headlines again after a Herald journalist, Ruth Pollard, exposed a “Pro Rape/Anti Consent” Facebook group run by students at the college…

While the scandal has made the students more media cautious, it does not seem to have affected their attitudes towards women. Earlier this year, a number of St Paul’s students planned a musical dance revue number titled Always look on the bright side of rape. The number was canned for fear that it might invite media coverage.

In the end, the villain of the revue was called “Ruth Pollard” and students hissed, booed and threw objects when the character appeared…

Nina Funnell, Contrition trumps sexism cover-ups, The National Times, September 22 2010.

I can’t honestly think anything other than that it will be a long long time before college culture changes a lot. There will be a lot of social pressure on and additional harassment of students who attempt to go through the university’s procedures as outlined in their policy, just as there has been of students who have gone through the legal system in the past. College songs, folklore and culture will continue to very explicitly promote sexual harassment and assault. I will be interested to hear if the efforts of the administrations of some of the other colleges are serious, sustained and effective over the next few years.

University colleges: nurturing a rape culture

This article originally appeared on Hoyden About Town.

Warning: this post has graphic quotes from and links to mainstream media accounts of rape culture and imagery, and sexual violence.

One of the profoundly disturbing aspects of rape culture discussions—and this won’t surprise readers here—is the way that they reveal the confident assumption that there are rapists, who are evil and other and unresponsive to any form of social control, and then there are the rest of us, who can be exposed to any number of conflicting messages about rape—sexy rape, not-rape rape, that-type-of-girl rape, he’s-such-a-good-fellow rape—and emerge with our anti-rape moral compass intact.

There is no single place in my own experiences that taught me that this is wrong more thoroughly and dramatically than university residential college.

Continue reading “University colleges: nurturing a rape culture”