Online Survey/Survey Research Guidance

In the course of designing a research project researchers may deem a survey or questionnaire as the best way to gather data from many participants in a short amount of time. When conducting survey research please remember to inform participants of the topics to be discussed, the risks and benefits of participation, and the manner and form in which data will be collected and confidentiality will be maintained. Below you will find more specific guidance on conducting survey research with an eye toward human subjects research compliance. For examples of a paper survey consent paragraph or an online survey consent document please refer to our consent form template page.

Signed Consent or Consent Paragraph

Some surveys may not require signed consent. For surveys where there is minimal risk to participants, where the signature on consent is the only piece of identifying information being collected, and/or for surveys conducted online, it would be best to utilize a simple consent paragraph as opposed to the much longer signed consent form. Please note that even though participants may not be required to sign the consent form, consent is still being obtained and participants should still be given the same type of information (voluntary nature of study, risks, benefits, procedures to maintain confidentiality, etc) as participants who will be physically signing a consent form. The shortened paper survey consent paragraph  or online survey consent acts as a consent document for participants and the process of participants proceeding to the survey and completing it constitutes consent.

Anonymity and Confidentiality

Few surveys are truly considered anonymous. Even though a participant is not being asked for their name in the survey, other pieces of information (IP address, email address, zipcode, etc) and/or demographic questions (sex and race especially in a small sample with low diversity) can potentially be used to glean the identity of individual participants. Also, in a face-to-face survey even if a name is not being recorded the mere fact of the researcher meeting the participant face-to-face negates the concept of anonymity. A more accurate description of survey data would be that it will be confidential meaning that researchers will utilize certain procedures to maintain the confidentiality of participants’ data.

Confidentiality in an Online Survey

For online surveys special attention must be paid to how participants data will be secured. This entails having a familiarity with: the survey software being used, the types of information being collected (IP address, email address), the options the survey software provides regarding what information to collect, the ways in which information will be stored, and how any identifying information will be de-linked from survey data, etc. It is important to note that third party survey software companies (i.e. Survey Monkey, Zoomerang, etc.) differ from software licenses made available through UMass (i.e. – Qualtrics, etc) so the researcher will need to be aware of these differences and the affect this will have on how and where survey data is stored and maintained. Aside from the ways in which any survey software will collect and maintain survey data, the researcher will also need to provide information about how the data, once retrieved from the survey software provider, will be maintained (i.e. – on password protected computers, on password protected cloud storage [What are the Terms Of Service for cloud storage company], etc). This information is necessary for the IRB to assess the level of security and subsequent risk to participants data being divulged. Information regarding data security would need to be included in the protocol submission and in the consent form.

For specific language to use in the consent form regarding confidentiality and data security please see our consent form templates.

Debriefing Process for Online Surveys

Some research requires a debriefing after participants have completed an online survey. Online debriefing forms should be similar to the debriefing process done during in-lab experiments. The debriefing page should come immediately after the last question on the survey. Participants should be thanked for participation and more information as to the purpose of the study should be provided. Also, researchers contact information and information about other resources (IRB info, Health Services, Local Resources) should be provided and participants should be reminded to print a copy of the debriefing form for their records. Participants should also be given the option to withdraw their data at this point (now that they have been fully informed as to the intent and purpose of the study). If they agree to have their data used for the study then they should have an “I Agree” button to click and submit their data online. If they do not agree to have their data used in the study they should have an “I Do Not Agree” button to click so that their data is not submitted and collected online. Please check with the online survey program you are using to ensure that these capabilities are allowed.

For specific language to use in the debriefing form please see our debriefing form template (general or deception).


For recruitment of online surveys please be sure to detail how participants will be made aware of the survey. If emails will be sent out please be sure to follow the appropriate IT, UMass guidelines and policies regarding mass emails or emails to listservs. Approval of mass emails will need to be documented with the appropriate channels before a protocol submission is approved. For more information on recruitment please see our website.