Ethical Aspects Of Surveys And Polling Research Paper

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Polls and surveys are used to investigate opinions and attitudes, and to obtain factual information. Two broad aspects of ethical practice with respect to polls and surveys can be distinguished. The first has to do with the extent to which research designs, instruments, data collection procedures, and analysis permit valid and reliable conclusions. The second pertains to the researcher’s obligations toward others, especially respondents, but clients and the larger public as well. Because polls and surveys are really indistinguishable except in terms of location, with polls typically carried out by commercial organizations and surveys by academic institutions (Schuman 1997), the present discussion of ethical practices is intended to apply to both.

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Although the discussion is framed in terms of the code of ethics of one organization in a particular country—the Code of Ethics of the American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR), a professional organization including academic, commercial, and government survey researchers among its members—the principles presented here apply much more generally. But because the legal requirements for protecting respondent confidentiality, as well as the ability to do so in practice, vary from one country to another, such variations are not discussed here. Also excluded from the discussion are the fundamentally different ethical issues raised by administrative uses of data gathered for statistical purposes (see, for example, Seltzer 1998).

1. Standards For The Conduct Of Research

AAPOR’s Code of Ethics, which obligates members to adhere to the Code and is one of the few such instruments to provide a mechanism for punishing violations, is necessarily couched in general terms, simply asserting that members will ‘exercise due care’ in carrying out research and ‘take all reasonable steps’ to assure the validity and reliability of results. In May 1996, AAPOR adopted two more specific statements, one defining a set of performance standards that embody current ‘best practices’ in the field of survey research, the other a set of practices that are universally condemned. Members are urged to adhere to the first and refrain from the second. Among the ‘best practices’ are scientific methods of sampling, which ensure that each member of the population has a measurable chance of selection; follow-up of those selected to achieve an adequate response rate; careful development and pretesting of the questionnaire, with attention to known effects of question wording and order on response tendencies; and adequate training and supervision of interviewers. Among practices defined as ‘unacceptable’ are fund raising, selling, or canvassing under the guise of research; representing the results of a poll of self-selected or volunteer respondents (for example, readers of a magazine who happen to return a questionnaire, callers to an 800or 900-number poll, or haphazard respondents to a web-based survey) as if they were the outcome of legitimate research; and ‘push polls,’ which feed false or misleading information to voters under the pretense of taking a poll. For example, a push-poll might ask if the respondent would object to learning that candidate X has been accused of child abuse, has defaulted on a loan, etc. Revealing the identity of individual respondents to anyone without their permission, and misleading the public by selecting or manipulating methods of research or analysis to reach a desired conclusion, are included among ‘unacceptable’ practices but they are also mentioned in the AAPOR Code.

2. Standards For Dealing With Clients, The Public, And Respondents

2.1 Obligations To Clients

Ethical behavior toward clients requires, in the first place, undertaking only those research assignments that can reasonably be accomplished, given the limitations of survey research techniques themselves or limited resources on the part of the researcher or client. Second, it means holding information about the research and the client confidential, except as expressly authorized by the client or as required by other provisions of the Code. Chief among the latter is the requirement that researchers who become aware of serious distortions of their findings in public must disclose whatever may be needed to correct these distortions, including a statement to the group to which the distorted findings were presented. In practice, this provision of the Code may obligate researchers to issue a corrective statement to a legislative body, a regulatory agency, the media, or some other appropriate group if they become aware of the release of such distorted results.

2.2 Obligations To The Public

The AAPOR Code of Ethics attempts to satisfy the profession’s obligations to the larger public by mandating the disclosure of minimal information about a poll or survey whose findings are publicly released. The elements that must, at a minimum, be disclosed are the following: (a) who sponsored the survey, and who conducted it; (b) the exact wording of questions asked, including the text of any preceding instruction or explanation to the interviewer or respondent that might reasonably be expected to affect the response; (c) a definition of the population under study and a description of the sampling frame; (d) a description of the sample selection procedure, making clear whether respondents were selected by the researcher or were self-selected; (e) size of sample and, if applicable, completion rates and information on eligibility criteria and screening procedures; (f) a discussion of the precision of the findings, including, if appropriate, estimates of sampling error and a description of any weighting or estimating procedure used; (g) which results, if any, are based on parts of the sample rather than the entire sample; (h) method, location, and dates of data collection. Together, these items of information communicate some idea of the error likely to be associated with estimates from a given survey, or, conversely, the degree of confidence warranted by the results. The Code requires this information to be included in any report of research results, or, alternatively, made available at the time the report is released. In other words, researchers are not required by the Code of Ethics to follow the best professional practices, but they are required to disclose the practices they used. Thus, the Code relies on the ‘marketplace of ideas’ to drive out bad practices over time.

2.3 Obligations To Respondents

Few, if any, surveys put respondents at physical or psychological risk in ways that psychological experiments or, particularly, medical research may do. Ordinarily, the biggest risk to survey respondents comes from the possibility that their identity will be disclosed, either inadvertently, because adequate precautions were not taken to maintain the confidentiality of the data, or deliberately, as a result of special efforts by an ‘intruder’ to obtain the identity of one or more respondents. Thus, survey organizations have a special responsibility both to protect the confidentiality of the data they collect and to inform respondents of the risks that remain. These are two of the ethical issues that will be discussed in this section; the third arises from declining survey response rates and attempts to compensate for these by special persuasion strategies, including the offer of refusal conversion payments.

2.3.1 Informed Consent In Surveys And Polls. One important purpose of informed consent is to protect respondents from harm. Another purpose, less often cited, is to give them meaningful control over information about themselves, even if the question of harm does not arise. For example, informing potential respondents of the voluntary nature of their participation in the interview is essential to ethical survey practice, even if this leads some potential respondents to refuse to participate. Similarly, obtaining the respondents’ permission to record an interview should be standard practice, even though no harm is likely to come to them as a result. Currently, many states permit such recording with only the interviewer’s consent.

At present, obtaining informed consent, which may be defined as the ‘knowing consent of an individual or his legally authorized representative … without undue inducement or any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, or any other form of constraint or coercion,’ is not legally mandated for participation in most surveys in the United States. Even those surveys that are subject to federal rules for the protection of human subjects are exempt unless they collect respondent identification and disclosure of responses could reasonably be damaging to respondents’ good reputation, employability, or financial standing or could put them at risk of civil or criminal liability (Federal Register 1991, 28:012). (Surveys of populations that are seen as especially vulnerable, such as minors or incapacitated or institutionalized adults, are required to institute special procedures for obtaining informed consent, however.) But surveys conducted by federal agencies are subject to the Privacy Act of 1974, which requires the disclosure of some information to respondents—for example, the principal purpose for which the survey is to be used (Duncan et al. 1993).

Although informed consent is not legally required for most surveys in the United States, some major professional associations (for example, the American Statistical Association and the American Sociological Association) do make mention of it in their ethical codes. AAPOR, however, does not, noting only that ‘We shall strive to avoid the use of practices or methods that may harm, humiliate, or seriously mislead survey respondents.’

It is not difficult to understand this omission. Although full disclosure of sponsorship and purpose, for example, may be highly desirable from an ethical point of view, it may seriously bias responses to a survey. It may do so not only because some people will choose not to participate in surveys sponsored by certain organizations or with a particular purpose, but also because those who do participate may distort their responses in order to thwart or advance the purpose as they understand it. From another standpoint, the issue is how much detail should be communicated in order to ‘inform’ respondents— should they, for example, be told in advance that they are going to be asked their income near the end of the interview? Although Presser (1994) argues persuasively that the uses to which a survey will be put are often impossible to predict and even harder to communicate to respondents with any accuracy, he acknowledges that in the end, there ‘may be no escaping the conflict of ethical obligations with research ends’ (Presser 1994, p. 454).

2.3.2 Protection Of Respondents’ Confidentiality. As has already been noted, probably the most important source of danger to survey respondents comes from identification of their responses, that is, from deliberate or inadvertent breaches of confidentiality. The more sensitive the information requested—for example, HIV status or whether the respondent has engaged in some illegal activity—the greater the harm that a breach of confidentiality might entail. Not unexpectedly, respondents require strong assurances of confidentiality when they are asked to provide such data about themselves (Singer et al. 1995).

A variety of threats to the confidentiality of survey data exist. Most common is simple carelessness—not removing identifiers from questionnaires or electronic data files, leaving cabinets unlocked, not encrypting files containing identifiers. Although there is no evidence of respondents having come to harm as a result of such negligence, it is important for data collection agencies to raise the consciousness of their employees with respect to these issues, provide guidelines for appropriate behavior, and ensure that these are observed.

Less common, but potentially more serious, threats to confidentiality are legal demands for identified data, either in the form of a subpoena or as a result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. Surveys that collect data about illegal behaviors such as drug use, for example, are potentially subject to subpoena by law-enforcement agencies. To protect against this, researchers studying mental health, alcohol and drug use, and other sensitive topics, whether federally funded or not, may apply for Certificates of Confidentiality from the Department of Health and Human Services. Such certificates, which remain in effect for the duration of the study, protect researchers from being compelled in most circumstances to disclose names or other identifying characteristics of survey respondents in federal, state, or local proceedings (42 C.F.R. 2a.7, ‘Effect of Confidentiality Certificate’). The Certificate protects the identity of respondents; it does not protect the data.

However, when surveys are done expressly for litigation, demands for data from one party or the other are not uncommon, and this protection may not be available. Several such cases are reviewed by Presser (1994). In one, the case was settled before the data were to be produced; in two others, the courts ordered the researchers to turn over raw data, including respondent identifiers, to the defendants. Presser (1994) discusses several actions that might be taken by professional survey organizations to enhance protections of confidentiality in such cases—for example, mandating the destruction of identifiers in surveys designed for adversarial proceedings. If this became standard practice, individual researchers would be better able to defend their own use of such a procedure.

A final threat to data confidentiality that should be mentioned here is what is known as ‘statistical disclosure.’ So far, the discussion has been in terms of explicit respondent identifiers—name, address, and social security number, for example. But there is increasing awareness that even without explicit identifiers, re-identification of respondents may be possible given the existence of high-speed computers, external data files to which the survey data can be matched, and sophisticated matching software. Longitudinal studies may be especially vulnerable to such re-identification.

There are essentially two ways to reduce the risk of statistical disclosure: restricting access to the data, for example by enclave or bonding arrangements, or restricting the data that may be released, for example, by top-coding age and income and releasing detailed data only for large geographic areas. Although guidelines for reducing the risk of statistical disclosure exist (Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology 1994), some researchers believe that the best way to safeguard confidentiality is to create synthetic data sets derived from the actual information provided by respondents (Rubin 1987).

In view of the diverse threats to confidentiality reviewed above, there is a growing consensus among researchers that absolute assurances of confidentiality should seldom, if ever, be given to respondents (Duncan et al. 1993). The ‘Ethical Guidelines for Statistical Practice’ of the American Statistical Association (ASA), for example, caution statisticians to ‘anticipate secondary and indirect uses of the data when obtaining approvals from research subjects.’ At a minimum, the Guidelines urge statisticians to provide for later independent replication of an analysis by an outside party. They also warn researchers not to imply protection of confidentiality from legal processes of discovery unless they have been explicitly authorized to do so, for example, by a Certificate of Confidentiality. Research by Singer (1978) and Singer et al. (1995) suggests that for surveys on nonsensitive topics, neither the response rate nor data quality is likely to suffer as a result of such qualified assurances of confidentiality. For those collecting sensitive data, researchers should make every effort to obtain a Certificate of Confidentiality, which would permit them to offer stronger assurances to respondents. Even such Certificates, however, cannot guard against the risk of statistical disclosure.

2.3.3 Efforts At Persuasion. An issue that merits brief discussion here is the dilemma created by the need for high response rates from populations that spend less time at home, have less discretionary time, and are less inclined to cooperate in surveys. This dilemma leads survey organizations to attempt more refusal conversions and to make greater use of refusal conversion payments. Respondents see both practices as undesirable (Groves et al. 1999). They also regard the paying of refusal conversion payments as unfair, but awareness of such payments does not appear to reduce either the willingness to respond to a future survey or actual participation in a new survey (Singer et al. 1999).

2.3.4 Polling On The Net. Polls and surveys conducted on the Internet have shown explosive growth in the last several years, and such surveys bring an entirely new set of ethical problems to the fore, or bring new dimensions to old problems. For example, maintenance of privacy and confidentiality in such surveys requires technological innovations (for example, ‘secure’ websites, encryption of responses) beyond those required by older modes of data collection. Other ethical issues simply do not arise with older modes of conducting surveys—for example, the possibility that a respondent might submit multiple answers, thus deliberately biasing the results—and these, too, call for new technical solutions requiring sophisticated knowledge of computer hardware and software. These problems, and proposed solutions, are too new to permit more than brief mention of them here.

3. Concluding Observations

A number of developments in recent years have increased ethical dilemmas for survey researchers. There is growing demand for information about individuals on the part of both business and government. At the same time, there is growing concern about personal privacy on the part of the public. Technological developments have made safeguarding privacy and confidentiality increasingly difficult, and for this as well as other reasons, there is increasing reluctance on the part of the public to participate in polls and surveys, including government censuses. How these dilemmas are resolved in the next few years will have profound implications for the future of survey research.


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