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Confidentiality and Electronic Surveys: How IRBs Address Ethical and Technical Issues

Researchers increasingly use electronic survey instruments to collect data in minimal-risk protocols involving human subjects. This study reports the results from a survey with 52 contact officers of institutional review boards to assess their IRB’s ability to accurately identify characteristics of electronic surveys that impact confidentiality and anonymity, their IRB’s interpretation of these features within the framework of ethical research, and whether their IRBs believe other formatting characteristics of electronic surveys are ethically relevant. Overall, IRB policies reflect technically accurate understandings of the factors that affect anonymity and confidentiality, though IRBs face challenges surrounding the review and approval of electronic surveys with minors, protocols using multiscreen surveys that may impede accessibility for the elderly and persons with visual impairments, and minimal-risk surveys hosted on external third-party or commercial servers.

Key words/concepts: electronic surveys; minimal-risk research; anonymity; confidentiality; security

Timothy D. Baker, “Confidentiality and Electronic Surveys: How IRBs Address Ethical and Technical Issues,” IRB: Ethics & Human Research 34, no. 5 (2012): 8-15.