Get Better Survey Responses by Using Informed Consent

March 10, 2016

Survey consent, the explicit agreement of your respondents to submit their data via your survey, is a crucial component of practically all academic and institutional research.

Human resources, health services, and any other field that collects potentially sensitive information should consider including very clear consent questions in their survey.

There are two very simple ways to collect consent up front in your survey, which we’ll cover later in this article. First let’s investigate the specific instances when survey consent is non negotiable, and how best to make sure you get it.

Why Survey Consent is Sometimes Necessary

From an academic perspective, fully informing your survey participants of the risks, benefits, and procedures involved with joining your study is standard practice for any research involving human participants.

For consent to be considered “informed,” your survey needs to disclose any facts that could influence someone’s decision about whether or not to participate in the study.

We’re focusing on survey consent today, but this restriction applies to any type of human-based research, including interviews and observations in which participants are identified.

Explicit Versus Implicit Survey Consent

When using internet-based surveys you may be able to use implied consent rather than including an explicit agreement question. But if you’re in doubt at all it’s best to collect explicit consent.

To gather implied consent you’re still required to present the same consent information, but participants are told that completing the surveys implies their agreement with the provided information.

If your work needs explicit consent you can use checkbox or radio button questions (more on this later), and you can even record a date and time stamp if that data is important for your research.

This implementation is generally preferable to requiring participants to fill out a separate consent form. Adding an additional step like this can have a significant negative impact your response rates.

Components of Survey Consent

Regardless of whether you decide to use implicit or explicit survey consent, you need to relay all the important details about your study to potential respondents. The goal is to make sure that everyone understands exactly what’s involved in being a respondent so you avoid any issues after your data has been collected.

What The Survey Is About

Your survey’s subject may seem obvious to you, but when a participant hasn’t seen a single question yet they may be unsure about the topic.

Provide a one or two sentence summary of your survey topic, including the purpose of your research and any affiliated institutions or organizations.

This is also a nice place to include details about the survey’s length (in number of questions or the projected time it will take to complete it) and what will happen once a respondent has completed all the questions.

What is Expected of the Respondent

This section is particularly important if the survey is part of a larger longitudinal study, or if you have any intentions of following up with additional qualitative questions.

But regardless of the survey’s content or purpose, make your expectations very clear to potential respondents.

If you know that your survey works best in landscape mode on mobile devices, or if you think the survey taking experience will be more pleasant on a desktop, share that information with those who’ll be providing you with data.

Risks and Benefits of Taking the Survey

Online surveys aren’t typically fraught with risk, but they can be components of larger projects that include physical activity or tests. Be clear about how the project as a whole is designed, and what risks might be involved for participants.

This is also the place to lay out benefits, including any survey incentives that you’re offering.

Clarity around incentive structure is key; your respondents need to know if they are guaranteed an incentive upon completion, or if they’ll just be entered into a drawing for a chance to win something.

Benefits of survey completion may also be less tangible. You could offer respondents early access to your results or a sneak peek at your analysis.

Confidentiality and Anonymity Options

If your survey contains questions that people may feel uncomfortable answering, make sure you clarify how you’re going to handle confidentiality or anonymity.

If you want to be able to gather sensitive data while still rewarding participants with incentives, you can redirect them to a completely separate survey upon completion.

Then they can provide contact details that won’t be associated with their original responses, ensuring anonymity while still compensating them for their time.

Contact Information for Survey Creator

No matter how clear your survey consent language is, some people will still have questions.

This means it’s vital that you include the easiest way for them to get in touch with you as a basic part of your survey design. Something as simple as an email address will do the trick, but the more information you provide the more secure respondents are likely to feel sharing their information with you.

Including phone numbers and mailing addresses can make you appear more reputable; they’re particularly important if you’re collecting sensitive data of any kind.

How Data Will Be Used

Finally, your survey consent information should leave no questions about your plans for the survey data that you collect.

If responses will be kept completely confidential, make that clear. If there will be any identifying information associated with a respondent’s answers you should disclose that up front.

It can seem like common sense for academic researchers who routinely publish findings, but your audience may not realize that you plan to make the survey results public. Any publication plans that you may have, either for the survey results or a larger study of which they are a small part, needs to be made clear to potential respondents.

Best Practices for Collecting Survey Consent

Now that we’ve covered precisely what makes up informed consent for a survey, it’s time to move into the details of how you can get it done.

In both of these scenarios you start your survey with a separate, unnumbered page devoted to collecting consent. You can also avoid confusion by removing the numbering option for these consent questions as well.

Survey Consent via Checkbox Question

When using this approach you set up a checkbox question with only two options:

  • Yes, I consent.
  • No, I do not consent.

Make the question required so that only participants who check “Yes” will be allowed to proceed into the main body of the survey.

Survey Consent via Radio Button Question

You can rearrange the question layout slightly if you prefer to use a radio button instead of checkbox. In this version your question will be something like, “I consent to providing my information in this survey.”

The answer responses would then simply be, “Yes” or “No.”

As with the checkbox question, all respondents who choose “No” would be disqualified from completing the rest of the survey.

Regardless of the approach that you choose, be sure that you create a polite “Thank you” message to show those who choose not to consent to your survey’s requirements.

Cornell Office of Institutional Research

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