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Research Ethics MonthlyISSN 2206-2483


Australasian Human Research Ethics Consultancy Services Pty Ltd (AHRECS)

Ethical use of social media as a recruitment tool0


Building the Conversation

From this month we will start including posts about the ethical design of human research. Our intent is not to present these ideas as the definitive or only way to approach a particular challenge/need but instead as prompts to get us all – participants, researchers, reviewers, regulators, administrators and other stakeholders – discussing useful and helpful approaches to the design, research ethics review and conduct of human research.

There are numerous reasons why social media can appear an attractive way to reach potential participants – it may be free or at least relatively inexpensive, it is increasingly ubiquitous across a range of Australian age groups (Sensis, 2017), and can be a powerful way to build an ongoing connection with a cohort of potential participants.

A recent issue of The American Journal of Bioethics focussed on the ethics of using social media as research platforms. An article by Luke Galinas and his colleagues (Galinas et al., 2017) noted the lack of resources and regulatory guidance in the United States on the use of social media as a recruitment tool. They concluded that this was a significant problem since, for all its benefits, use of social media is not without ethical and practical challenges and traps. Fortunately, these are not insurmountable. Galinas’ article explored how biomedical researchers might respond in the United States by attending to the issues of researcher transparency and respect for the privacy of participants; in this blog post, we provide advice for Australian researchers and reviewers in an effort to stimulate further discussion between them.

Excluding some potential participants – The penetration of social media platforms across all age groups of the Australian population over the last ten years has been truly remarkable. There do remain, however, some significant differences on the extent of usage depending on age, geographic location and socio-economic status. Consequently, open recruitment via social media may skew a participant pool towards area where social media use is more prevalent and may inadvertently exclude some groups of people with perspectives, views or voices that might undermine the value of a project’s finding.

Platform differences and exclusion – Not every social media platforms had the same user demographics; someone who uses social media 15 times per day may only be frequenting one platform. There is no single platform that is used by most social media users. Indeed, even platforms such as Facebook seem to be used more by a particular age-range of people within the Global North. Other countries have their own platforms that are heavily used within the region (e.g. China – WeChat (微信; Wēixìn) and Russia – VK social media (Vkontakte) and Odnoklassniki), but hardly ever by people outside that region.

Privacy rules and concerns – Privacy concerns are amongst the more significant reasons why some people do not currently use social media (Sensis, 2017). Indeed, many users do not understand the privacy rules of their preferred platform(s) and remain concerned about privacy. One large survey conducted by Evans et al. (2015) suggested that concern was greater among younger and more frequent users.

Comments from participants and others – Enabling participants to comment on the recruitment social media pages for a project might be an effective way to engage with potential participants. However, there are important reasons for caution about allowing participants to comment on such pages as they might expose themselves to risk. Individuals might divulge whether they are participants or were excluded by the screening tool. In addition, they might distort the data collected from others by prompting particular responses to their own comments.

Pseudonyms and de-identification –The presumptive remedy to many social media challenges is to delete, modify or otherwise obfuscate personal identifiers such as user names. However, some platform rules often specifically preclude such an approach (e.g. Twitter treats any such de-identification as a copyright concern). Furthermore, modifications of comments or descriptions raises at least the possibility the researcher fabricated or falsified data (much as occurred in Alice Goffman’s offline study, see Neyfakh, 2015).

Recruitment materials – Many national human research ethics arrangements, such as Australia’s National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research specify that review bodies must consider and first approve recruitment materials, including the text of posts to go on a social media page. In most cases, this role will be delegated to the Chair (for executive review) or the Ethics Officer (for administrative review). The rigour and substance of this review should be proportionate to the risks and ethical sensitivities of a project. The need and purpose of this review reflects the potential for risks, privacy and other human research ethics matters that can be associated with a project’s recruitment strategy.

The application for research ethics review should cover the above matters and explain why the applicant believes the proposed approach is ethical, appropriate, respectful and justified. Such matters may also need to be discussed in the consent (if not the recruitment) materials. Similarly, research ethics reviewers should expect such a justification to be provided, be open to and accepting of innovation, offer praise where due, and share their thinking where uncomfortable with a proposed approach.

Like most topics in human research ethics, there is no single ‘correct’ approach with regard to recruitment and social media. Ethical research may be best pursued through reflection and collegial discussion.


Evans H, Ginnis S and Bartlett J (2015) #SocialEthics: A guide to embedding ethics in social media research.

Gelinas L. et al. (2017) Using Social Media as a Research Recruitment Tool: Ethical Issues and Recommendations. The American Journal of Bioethics, Vol. 17, No. 3. DOI: 10.1080/15265161.2016.1276644

Neyfakh, L. (2015) The Ethics of Ethnography. Slate Magazine. Retrieved 8 November 2017, from…

NHMRC (2007) National Statement on ethical conduct in human research.

Sensis (2017) Social Media Report 2017. Retrieved from: (accessed 7 November 2017)

Other reading

Chamber C (2014, 1 July) Facebook fiasco: was Cornell’s study of ‘emotional contagion’ an ethics breach? The Guardian. Retrieved from (accessed 8 November 2015)

Leetaru K (2016, 17 June) Are Research Ethics Obsolete in the Era of Big Data? Forbes/Tech

Dr Gary Allen | Senior Consultant AHRECS | Gary’s AHRECS

Prof. Mark Israel | Senior Consultant AHRECS | Mark’s AHRECS

This post may be cited as:
Allen G. and Israel M. (2017, 20 November 2017) Ethical use of social media as a recruitment tool Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Terms and conditions apply0


Kids tell us that making decisions can sometimes be hard (anyone who has taken a child to an ice cream shop can attest to this). Adults don’t often give children choices and kids tell us that when they do it can be confusing: ‘what am I being asked?’, ‘can I really say no?’, ‘do they seriously care?’ and ‘what will happen if I make a decision the adult doesn’t like?’ are questions that might spring to mind. After all, they tell us that it’s not usual for adults to seek out children’s views, to let them make big decisions or to give up some of their ‘adult power’ and act on children’s wishes.

And yet children are required to ‘assent’ to research, often with little information about what research actually is and what they will be required to do. In most cases, they know that their parents have already given permission for them to be involved – which may be reassuring but also a bit daunting (how often is it that kids can say ‘no’ when their parents have already said ‘yes’?) – but in most cases a complete stranger comes into their home or schoolroom and pulls out a note pad and asks them whether their happy to answer a few questions. “Um OK?”

Since the Helsinki Declaration there has been an expectation that children provide assent to their participation in research. Often this entails providing them with a long-winded, legalistic and ‘pretty boring’ information letter, telling them that if they agree they might get a movie voucher or at least a packet of chips and a can of soft drink before asking them to tick a box to show that they agree. As a child in one of my studies reported, the process is ‘kinda like’ the terms and conditions process they go through when downloading a new app from i-Tunes. Like 73% of Terms and Conditions non-readers, kids in research often have no idea what they are signing up for and what their rights are when things go wrong.

In a recent study my colleagues and I conducted for the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse we got advice from children and young people about how to best help kids understand and consent to participating in research on a fairly sensitive topic. Based on this advice we conceptualized consent as an ongoing process that included six steps: (1) present information in a child-friendly and accessible way; (2) make sure they understand what research is and what they are expected to do; (3) give them the choice to participate (or not) and ask them to formally agree; (4) give them lots of opportunities (and the skills or tools) to bow out of the research (particularly after they’ve got a ‘feel’ for what they are being asked to do) or to change the way that they are participating; (5) be aware of the ways that kids resist or ‘dissent’ (yawning or sneaking out of the room might give it away) and constantly ‘check in’ with them in child-friendly ways (6) Get an agreement with them at the end of the research activity that they are still happy for their input to be included in the study and negotiate what, if anything, they’re happy for the researcher to share with their parent, teacher or older sibling who is standing behind the door.

In the paper “More a marathon than a hurdle: towards children’s consent in a safety study” my colleagues and I outline how we went through these steps with kids, we describe how we used felt toys, ‘stop signs’ and ‘rights posters’ to help children and young people consent and, most importantly, quote advice and feedback from children and young people on how adult researchers might best help kids to make decisions within the research context.

One tool we feature in the article is our “Charter of Rights” poster which we provide kids in our studies. The poster informs them of what they should expect from us, as researchers, and what to do if they are unhappy. The poster is given to the children prior to them meeting with our staff and is further explained before assent is sought. On the advice of children and young people who have advised our projects, the rights charter has also been used as the basis of a series of games and activities that can be used to help children understand their rights in research (and in welfare practice). More detail about these can be found here. My team at the Institute of Child Protection Studies are working with peers from the Centre from Children and Young People (Southern Cross University), UNSW and the University of Melbourne to progress ethical research with children and young people. We’re currently hosting a survey on ethical decision-making – take a minute to fill it in! We’re keen to chat with others who are grappling with how to meaningfully engage kids in research (and support them to make good decisions) and would love to hear from you. *Terms and Conditions Apply.

Dr Tim Moore
Senior Research Fellow | Institute of Child Protection Studies, ACU
Bio page at

This post may be cited as:
Moore T. (2017, 21 July) Terms and conditions apply; Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Building beneficial relationships when conducting research with migrant communities0


In my experience, projects that involve working with migrant groups and communities reveal a range of complex issues with regards to ethics and the types of the relationships between the researcher and participants. While acknowledging the importance of formal ethical requirements I also believe that the concept of research ethics has a dynamic nature which means that many dilemmas that will emerge during the study will require an individual approach that does not necessarily fit into set rules. In this context, researchers working with migrant communities may need to think about how they can do this in a way that benefits both sides and reflects well the research situation. One of the dilemmas here is how to balance the pre-designed with the spontaneous elements of this kind of academic research project, thus avoiding an instrumental approach to gathering data that could lack sensitivity to participants’ needs and situations.

One of the ways of thinking about the research process in ethical terms is to approach it by focusing on the following key elements: characteristics of the researcher and his/her social background, characteristics of the researched community, research methods and settings, research aim and wider agenda. What I also found helpful from my experience of conducting small-scale community-based qualitative projects was defining them through the prism of building relationships between the researcher and the participants in which the purpose and boundaries are clearly identified at all stages. While the characteristics of the researcher and his/her social background play an important role in defining their position within the group and should be taken into account, it is also important to consider how s/he wants to define the roles of researched community and engage with the participants. Would the participants be treated as anonymous interviewees, or act as full collaborators? In case of collaboration will their time be acknowledged and/or compensated, and how? How will the benefits from participation be communicated to the community, before, during and after the study?

Thinking and defining participants’ roles within the study can also help to distinguish different levels of formalisations of relationships between the researcher and the participants, for example, in the situation when one collaborates with community leaders and activists (as well as thinking whether it would be useful/appropriate to use them at all). Other factors to consider when identifying types of relationships could refer to levels of vulnerability of the participants in relation to state policies, immigration status, and media attention and, subsequently, in relation to the aim, subject and scope of the conducted research and its place and connection to wider contexts and networks.

The ‘research process as relationships’ approach also helps to acknowledge the dynamic nature of established connections and perceive them as something that can change and continuously develop throughout the study. The level of closeness, trust and involvement can differ at various points of the study depending on the range of individual and social circumstances of all involved parties. If the project allows, spending more time within the community before, during and after the fieldwork and identifying modes of engagement with community at each stage can help to establish positive relationships and ensure that participants benefit from them as much as the researcher. Working within community-based/migrant contexts can require additional levels of flexibility and sensitivity towards people and their lives, their concerns, tensions, experiences and stories. Integrating these complexities into the research process in the way that would benefit all groups involved in the study is an important ethical task. So, one should think how the benefits from participation will be communicated to the community, will the participation be recognised and how, whether any events will be planned after the fieldwork and whether any further opportunities for contribution to the project will be created? Furthermore, the conditions of the study itself can have an impact on time required to establish positive relationships, such as, the location of the interview (at participants’ home, community centre, public space); whether any visual methods are used and which ones (participant or researcher generated photography); number of the interviews or focus-groups, whether additional methods such as observation are used; what and how to be recorded (audio or video); whether researcher approaches the whole families or specific family members; etc.

Certainly, each project has its own unique elements and conditions and there will always be aspects of the study that will only unfold during the fieldwork when researchers are actively engaged with the participants. At the same time, thinking of the value and impact of the study and how researcher-participant relationships can improve it should be as important as designing interview schedules, consent forms, and invitation letters.

Please see the detailed discussion on ethics and positionality when conducting research of migrants’ homemaking practices:

Pechurina, A. (2015) Material Culture, Migrations, and Identities. Chapter 3. Researching Russianness: A Discussion of Methods. London: Palgrave.

Pechurina, A. (2014) Positionality and Ethics in the Qualitative Research of Migrants’ Homes. Sociological Review Online. Vol (19) 1.

Dr Anna Pechurina – Leeds Beckett University | Senior Lecturer in Sociology in the School of Social Sciences
Leeds Beckett profile: Personal webpage:

This post may be cited as:
Pechurina A. (2017, 26 July) Building beneficial relationships when conducting research with migrant communities Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

Intuitive Research Ethics Training for Novices0


The pedagogy of teaching research methods, let alone research ethics, is an under-researched field. In this blog entry, two postgraduate students reflect on their classroom experience where our lecturer engaged his students in a qualitative research ethics course, using two novice ethnographers’ candid empirical studies as the basis for discussion. While it is more usual for students to be schooled in ethics via lectures and seminars, what was unusual in this course was assigning the readings without first introducing the students to ethical concepts such as autonomy, do no harm, respect for participants or beneficence.

After Rachel and Louisa introduced ourselves to the other three members of the course, the lecturer placed his audio recorder on the table and activated the red light before introducing the course. In the midst of the awkward silence, we remember looking over to the other students, feeling confused and uneasy. Little did we realise at the time that our lecturer was reproducing the Asch conformity experiment. As the lecturer outlined the course goals and the assessment, none of us were listening, still blinded by the red glare and feeling unusually perturbed. Finally, after a few minutes one of us broke the ice asking the obvious question, “is that ethical?” The lecturer seemed perplexed. Another student translated, “she means do you need our consent for the audio recorder?” “What do you mean by consent?” he asked. Thus began a very different way of learning about research ethics. The lecturer didn’t instruct us on ethics, he believed each person’s moral compass was their guide. His role was provocateur, the class’s role was to locate ethical dilemmas in the readings presented, allowing us to solve them in situ. By asking the question “is this ethical” we had passed his first test. With our permission, the weekly classroom discussions were recorded, and our actual process of consent was part of learning by doing. The raw data for the co-authored journal article Teaching research ethics as active learning details our journey.

Our next substantive task asked us to review a newspaper article describing a situation where a researcher posed as a visiting academic and interviewed staff about their working conditions without informing them that he was their next Vice Chancellor (Lynley 2016).

Lynley, B. (2016, February 3). Lincoln University horrified after undercover encounter with new boss – Education – NZ Herald News. New Zealand Herald.

We remember thinking, “he should have told them that he was the preferred candidate for VC”. Concerned that this researcher failed to declare his prospective identity, we classified this act as a conflict of interest. It is only at that moment we realised the intentions of the lecturer in the opening moments of the class, he had tried to capitalise on a power differential implicit within our group between lecturer and students. The key learning here was to establish “power” as the primary ethical dilemma of research ethics for sociologists. We knew that had any member of our class objected to the recording of our discussions, the audio recorder would have been removed. Whereas with the scenario depicted above, the future Vice Chancellor failed to extend such an opportunity to his participants. In this way, our learning in this Qualitative Research Ethics class was incremental.

The lecturer then asked us to take the perspective of a resident in a community that both Venkatesh and Goffman describe and then share with the class any moments where we felt an unease with the relationship between researcher and researched.

Goffman, A. (2014) On the run: Fugitive life in an American city. Picador, New York.

Venkatesh, S. (2008). Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets. New York: Penguin.

Our responses, our learning are detailed in our article:

Tolich, M., Choe, L., Doesburg, A., Foster, A., Shaw, R. and Wither, D., 2017. Teaching research ethics as active learning: reading Venkatesh and Goffman as curriculum resources. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, pp.1-11.

The lecturer had two other unstated learning objectives. First, he wanted to illustrate the importance of formal ethics review as integral to the research process. Neither Goffman nor Venkatesh had sought formal ethics review and the class concluded each would have benefited from doing so. However, the ethics review process would have missed many of the “big ethical moments” that emerged while doing research in the field. The lecturer’s second objective was to encourage students to write about their big ethical moments, reflexively, and we did.

Looking back at our first day of graduate school, the presence of an active audio recorder succeeded in providing us with the framework necessary for learning qualitative ethics. The materials selected for this ethics class, mainly Venkatesh’s and Goffman’s work allowed us to take our gut feelings one step further, to discuss and debate the ethical dilemmas presented until we were able to reflexively understand that these social science researchers could improve on their practices. We were therefore able to move from ‘Ah! There is something wrong with this’ to the reasons why it was wrong and how it could have been done better. The critical thinking skills we established as ethics students not only allowed us to dissect the works we read, but helped us to apply these concepts to our own research practices.


Louisa Choe holds a PhD scholarship in sociology at the University of Otago conducting a mixed methods analysis of “Do the poor pay more?”

Rachel Shaw holds a MA scholarship in gender studies at the University of Otago conducting an oral history of the experiences of lesbians during the 1970s and 1980s in New Zealand.

This post may be cited as:
Choe L, and Shaw R. (2017, 16 March) Intuitive Research Ethics Training for Novices. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from:

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