Ethics in Survey Research

As you begin to develop your survey it is important to remember that those you invite to take your survey have certain legal and ethical rights. These rights need to be taken into consideration both in developing your survey and after you’ve administered it. The following information will help you ensure that your survey is ethical and protects the rights of those who participate in your research.

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Characteristics of an ethical survey

An ethical survey places the safety and protection of respondents first. To avoid placing respondents at risk, consider the following when designing your survey.

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1. Voluntary Participation: People invited to take your survey need to know that their participation is completely voluntary.

2. Informed Consent: Potential participants in your research need to be informed about the risks, benefits, and facts before they make the decision to participate.

3. Avoiding Bias: Strive to eliminate any potential for bias that results from both the wording and ordering of your survey’s questions.

4. Privacy: Take precautions to ensure the privacy and confidentiality of your survey takers, and the confidentiality of their responses.

5. Minimizing Potential Harm: Your survey and its questions should not seriously mislead, humiliate, or embarrass the participant or cause him or her psychological discomfort.


Do you need IRB approval?

Loyola Marymount University’s Institutional Review Board protects the rights and welfare of respondents through reviewing and approving proposals for studies involving human participants. Whether your study requires the approval of the IRB depends on many factors.

The following is a list of questions that will help determine if you should seek IRB approval. Consider these questions carefully and if your answer is yes to one or more, you may need to seek IRB approval.

Note that if your survey does require IRB approval you must have this approval prior to any data collection.

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1. Is it research? The IRB defines research as a systematic investigation designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge.

2. How will your survey impact respondents? Although the potential to harm respondents should always be avoided or minimized, it is not always possible to eliminate the risk entirely.

3. What is the population under study? If you will be surveying vulnerable populations such as individuals that are not able to provide full consent or that are particularly vulnerable to harm, including minors, prisoners, pregnant women, or those with a mental disability, your survey will require IRB approval.

4. How will you use or share your results? If you plan to share or publish your results with individuals or groups outside of the LMU community your survey will likely need to be approved by the IRB.

5. Do others have access to your raw data? The greater the number of individuals who have access to your data, the greater the chance that confidentiality will be compromised.

6. Will the survey be anonymous? In many cases, surveys that are anonymous may not require IRB approval, but if your survey or its methods have the potential to compromise confidentiality you should seek IRB approval.

IRB Contact

Should you have questions about your survey and the possible need for IRB approval, please contact:

Julie Paterson
IRB Coordinator

For more information about the IRB, including forms and instructions for applying for IRB approval, please visit:

Available Reference Materials

Suskie, L. A. (1996.) Questionnaire survey research: What works. (2nd ed.). Tallahassee, FL: The Association for Institutional Research (available through the LINK+ system).