10 Ethical Considerations For Your Next Survey

Philip Cleave
May 17, 2024
Good practice results when you implement more ethical processes into your survey building

Whether it’s for business, research, market analysis and more, surveys are one of the most effective ways of gathering the data and insights needed to inform our decision-making and actions. Yet, how many of us have stopped to consider in detail the ethical considerations for surveys we conduct?

Considering that you typically need to collect people’s personal data, when you’re asking for their opinions, it’s vital that you can handle their data with sensitivity, openness and care. But not only this, good ethical conduct helps improve the quality and reliability of data you get back from respondents. However, this shouldn’t be too surprising when you consider that trustworthiness and data ethics are becoming increasingly important to people when they’re sharing data with others.

Consequently, we’ll be outlining in this blog ten things you can do to ensure ethical surveys. But before we do that, we’ll just explain in a bit more detail what survey ethics are and why they’re important.

What is survey ethics?

Survey ethics is concerned with the conduct of research using surveys and the ethical practices surrounding this. It’s focused on the ethics of the survey questions you ask, how you ask them and how you use the results. The aim of ethical surveys is to protect participants’ rights and privacy, ensuring that their replies are utilized according to their expectations and the law.

Survey ethics look to uphold the moral principles and guidelines that researchers should follow while conducting surveys. It’s focused on ensuring the integrity of the data collection process, while respecting the rights and well-being of the participants involved.

In summary, survey ethics is focused on:

  • Collecting informed consent from participants
  • Clearly outlining the purpose of a survey
  • Safeguarding the confidentiality and anonymity of responses

It also requests that researchers avoid any form of coercion or manipulation, to ensure survey participants offer their responses freely and without any pressure.

Ethical survey practices also demand transparency, through researchers being open and honest about the survey’s objectives, who is conducting it and how data will be gathered and used.

If researchers can adhere to these ethical principles, they’ll create a more trustworthy environment, where survey participants are encouraged to engage sincerely and contribute meaningfully to research.

Why are survey ethics important?

Having got up to speed on what constitutes survey ethics, it’s helpful to know why they’re so important to ensuring credible research.

Essentially, ethical survey practices are important, because they help in:

Strengthening trust and credibility

Ethical surveys help to build trust between a surveyor and their participants. This is because when participants know their answers are safe and respected, they’re more likely to be honest, leading to better results.

Enabling more reliable information

When respondents are left alone and not coerced into answering in a particular way, your survey response data will be more accurate and honest.

Not only will this help you to gather more genuine opinion and experiences, but such unbiased feedback will help you to make better decisions too.

Respecting participants rights

Ethical issues with surveys include the need to uphold respondents’ rights, including informed consent (see below) and privacy.

Ultimately, participants have the right to know how their data will be used, so they can respond without fear of reprisal. And respecting these rights will help you to foster a more positive experience with them.

Enhancing an organization’s reputation

Businesses that follow survey ethics demonstrate a commitment to responsible practices. As such, this behavior towards data collection helps strengthen an organization’s reputation, showcasing them as socially responsible and fully focused on ethical conduct.

Making smarter choices

Ethical surveys help provide crucial insights about what people want and need. This helps organizations and business leaders make better decisions that are more likely to match the wishes of the people they serve.

Legal compliance

Surveys focused on ethical practices ensure compliance with data protection laws and regulations. Adhering to such ethical standards helps safeguard businesses from any legal complications and penalties associated with the mishandling of sensitive data.

Encouraging participant engagement

When surveys are built on ethical practices, this helps reinforce a more positive survey-taking experience.

Consequently, this helps build trust. And the more confidence respondents have in the survey process, the more likely they’ll be to engage in future surveys.

Ten ways to make your survey more ethical

At this point we hope you recognize the importance of paying attention to ethical issues with surveys.

If you’ve not already implemented anything, outlined below are ten considerations to make your surveys more ethical.

Maintain transparency

When it comes to respondent participation in your survey, you need to be completely transparent about the purpose of your survey, why you’re conducting it and how you will use the data.

Doing this will give participants a clearer understanding of your survey’s purpose, and the potential impact of their survey responses, so they can be better informed about whether they want to complete it.

Highlight privacy and data protection

It’s crucial to protect your respondents’ privacy, as well as their data.

Consequently, survey designers and the software they’re using must adhere to any applicable data protection laws and regulations, that will ensure respondents’ personal information is securely collected, stored and used only for the purposes specified.

The implementation of measures such as encryption, restricted access, and secure storage can help protect participants’ data from unauthorized access or breaches.

You should also clearly communicate the survey privacy measures you’ve taken and provide contact information for queries or concerns related to data privacy.

Obtain informed consent

At the same time as highlighting your commitment to respondent’s privacy and data protection concerns, getting their consent before they can take your survey is another fundamental ethical requirement.

The aim of informed consent is to ensure your respondents are fully aware of your survey’s purpose, how their data will be used, and any potential risks or benefits associated with their participation. You should also provide clear information about your survey’s goals, procedures, anonymity measures and how the data will be handled.

You can obtain their consent quickly through consent forms or adding an introductory section to your survey. The aim is to allow participants to make more informed decisions about their participation. However, obtaining participants’ consent is less of an issue on really short surveys or quick polls, where they aren’t divulging any compromising data.

Protect participant anonymity and confidentiality

Respondents need to have a safe space to express their views honestly without fear of repercussions or judgment. So, if a survey creator promises anonymity or confidentiality or both, they must honor that.

It can also be helpful for the survey creator to explain the difference between the two terms. While anonymity ensures that a respondent’s identity is unknown to everyone, confidentiality guarantees that the collected data is secure but accessible to some (usually a third-party conducting the survey, not the organization that commissioned it, which allows for follow-up).

For more information on the differences, you might like to read our ‘Anonymous Vs Confidential Surveys’ blog piece.

Encourage truthfulness

Whatever survey you may be looking to run, you’ll want your responses to be as accurate and honest as they can be, as that ensures the most valuable data.

If you’re to get these, your survey must be designed in a way that encourages respondents to provide truthful answers to the best of their knowledge and ability. This will require you to provide survey questions that are clear, unambiguous and avoid leading or biased language that could influence a respondents’ answers. In addition, when respondents are given clear instructions that assure them about the importance of honest responses, that can also promote more truthful responses.

Handle sensitive topics with care

If your survey includes sensitive topics, it’s vital that you can approach it with a little bit of tact and sensitivity.

It’s important to take care to avoid any question wording that could offend or humiliate participants. And you should also consider who you are surveying and take special care if you’re addressing vulnerable groups.

Ultimately, participants should feel assured that you can handle their responses with care and confidentiality, so they feel happy to answer even the most delicate questions.

Incentivise participation

If you’re struggling to get enough participation in your research, you could try using survey incentives.

However, if you decide to do this, you need to be clear about how participants will receive their reward. This means clearly pointing out any qualifying or disqualifying factors. You should also explain how and when the reward will be delivered, whether that’s a gift in the mail or a promotional code sent via email.

Be mindful of your participants’ time and effort

No one likes to take a survey that’s too long or requires too much effort. So, try to design a survey that’s short and focused.

Here’s a few pointers that can help you with this.

  • Make sure your survey is no longer than is necessary to capture all the insights you’ll require to meet your objectives
  • Try to limit your number of questions, and don’t ask any that are irrelevant or repetitive
  • Don’t use too many open-ended questions but include more closed-ended questions that are simpler and quicker to complete
  • Consider letting people know upfront how many questions they’ll need to work through, along with the inclusion of a progress bar, so they know how much more they need to complete
  • Consider using survey logic such as skip logic and piping to provide a more logical and personalized route through your survey for respondents

Ultimately, participants are more likely to meaningfully engage with your survey, if they see you’ve taken some steps to value their time.

Make participation voluntary

When it comes to participation in your surveys, you must always ensure this is voluntary. No one should ever feel pressured or coerced into taking your survey.

Offer respondents a clear option to opt out and assure them that their decision will not have any negative consequences. And for those that do go on to complete your survey, always remember to thank them for their time and efforts.

Get the right survey tools

If you’re to ensure your survey practices are as ethical as you can make them, you should also ensure you’re using the best survey software to help you with that.

With SmartSurvey for example, we offer a range of tools and features including some of those already discussed to help you to conduct your surveys more ethically. With our survey software you can also ensure participant confidentiality and the highest levels of data protection and security.

Our credentials range from our ISO27001 and Cyber Essentials Plus certification and compliance with GDPR and the Data Protection Act to our data hosting which is replicated across two UK sites.

Concluding thoughts

Good ethical conduct in surveys has a pivotal role to play in safeguarding participant rights, ensuring data integrity and maintaining trust.

While this is good for participants, it should also be positive for you in terms of increasing your response rate and the reliability and accuracy of data you receive from respondents. And when you consider that respondents who receive positive survey experiences, are also more likely to take future surveys with you, if you need them again, this is a win-win situation making the implementation of good ethics into your survey practices well worth it.