ESOMAR and GRBN on Online Research

I wear several different hats including that of a consultant to the ESOMAR Professional Standards Committee. In that capacity I work with teams charged with developing guidance on the ethical and legal issues researchers confront when working with different research methods. In 2015 ESOMAR joined with the Global Research Business Network (GRBN) to develop a Guideline for Online Research, an update of earlier guidance developed jointly by CASRO and ESOMAR describing how to apply the fundamental ethical principles of market, opinion, and social research in the context of the current legal frameworks and regulatory environments around the world. The guideline’s objective is to support researchers, especially those in small and medium-sized research organizations, in addressing the legal, ethical, and practical considerations of using new technologies to conduct research online. This post is based on a short piece I wrote for the GRBN News to summarize the overall approach of the guideline and describe the issues it takes up.

The guideline describes researchers’ responsibilities to three broad audiences.

The first is research participants. Here it underscores the importance of avoiding activities and practices that might discourage research participation by blurring the line between research and marketing/sales. It reaffirms the fundamental importance of honesty, consent, the voluntary nature of research, and the need for researchers to ensure that participants suffer no adverse consequences as a result of their participation. It also provides practical advice on email and text solicitation practices, the use of incentives, and passive data collection where there may be no direct interaction with those from whom data are collected.

This last issue of passive data collection (e.g. web browsing data, loyalty cards, geo-location data from connected devices, social media data) has become especially important as researchers increasing look to these sources for insight. The guideline describes specific practices to employ when working with these kinds of data.

The second audience is clients. The guideline underscores the critical need for both parties to rigorously protect personal data and the fundamental importance of researchers being fully transparent in all phases of the research, but especially in reporting. There also is a section on methodological quality specifying the information that should be routinely shared with clients to allow them to assess the reliability of findings.

The final audience is the general public. Here it highlights the importance of always behaving in such a way that public confidence in research is not undermined. It provides guidance on the sometimes-difficult task of working jointly with clients to ensure that any published results are not misleading and that any technical information needed to assess the validity of published findings is made available.

There also is guidance on a variety of specific issues that researchers are likely to encounter when doing online research. They include best practices when doing research with children, the use of online identification and tracking technologies when working with panels, mobile research, social media research, the handling of new forms of personal data such as photographs and videos, cloud storage, anonymisation and pseudonymisation techniques, and uses of paradata. The guideline concludes with a list of unacceptable practices that if used would be considered spyware.

In June ESOMAR and GRBN will be running two webinars on specific issues within the guideline

  • 14th June: Webinar on incentives, sweepstakes and free prize draws
  • 28th June: Webinar on sample source and management

The first webinar will take place from 16.00-17.00 CET on the 14th, so please mark the date in your calendar and check out the GRBN event calendar nearer the date for how to sign up.

Additional project teams are already at work on new global guidelines to help researchers navigate the increasingly complex legal and ethical environments in which we work. Look for new joint guidelines on social media research and mobile research later this year.

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