Research involving humans - response to COVID-19
15 January 2021
Due to the current circumstances, researchers must consider using online or remote methods where at all possible.
Any in-person face-to-face research or research involving travel must be permissible, safe and ethical.
Due to the current circumstances and restrictions in Scotland and the rest of the UK, research involving in-person contact with human participants is only permissible in very limited situations. For more information see the University research and coronavirus page.
Researchers must check the University coronavirus information pages and travel and fieldwork guidance frequently and before commencing any activity to ensure they are complying with current requirements.
For more information on the ethical review process at this time, see the interim guidance for research involving humans.
Recruitment of participants can take many forms, but generally involves the presentation of core information about the research to potential participants, prior to their enrolment, in order to establish interest and willingness to take part in the study as research subjects. This information is often the first point of contact future participants have with the research and is thus considered the beginning of the informed consent process. For this reason, it is of utmost importance that information about the research is transparently presented. It is also paramount that the recruitment process is handled in an ethical manner.
Caution against social profiling
In some cases simply identifying an individual as a potential participant in a research project can involve a violation of privacy and/or a process social profiling. For example, identifying an individual as a representative of a religious, ethnic minority, or socio-economic community, when the person may not identify primarily as such, may cause distress or result in stigmatization. Recruitment methods must take into account privacy concerns and potential to cause psychological or emotional harm.
Avoidance of pressure or undue influence
Participant involvement in research must be voluntary. For this reason, participants should be provided with adequate information and time to make a reasoned and free decision regarding their involvement. The exertion of pressure through timing constraints (e.g. requests for an immediate response), (e.g. if participation is requested by a teacher, doctor, line manager, parent), or method of the request should be avoided. Researchers should refrain from offering of disproportionate financial (or other) inducements though any loss of earnings/expenses incurred by participants as a result of involvement in the research should be properly compensated. Researchers considering recruiting members of their own household or family should be give particularly consideration to the impact this may have on consent and the research relationship.
Accurate and clear description of the study
Information about the research shared with participants should be clear and jargon free. The degree of involvement, time commitment, number of visits, data storage and future usage plans, should be fully detailed on the participant information sheet (PIS) (Word) and should be shared with participants prior to consent being requested (ideally the PIS should be circulated by email or other electronic means prior to the first meeting when will be sought).
Recruiting participants remotely or online can bring advantages and disadvantages. Whatever recruitment method researchers use, this should be fully documented in their ethical review application form (Word) with samples of adverts, social media posts or images attached to the application.
Researchers should consider whether their recruitment methods could identify those who choose to participate, for example by using a public poll or asking interested individuals to comment or post in reaction to an advert. This is particularly important if the research topic is sensitive or where participation could identify participants as having certain characteristics or views.
Social networks, ‘snowballing’ and word of mouth
It is common for researchers to recruit participants from among their immediate social networks, using snowballing or word of mouth - often combined with some of the methods described below. This can allow for researchers to reach participants who may already have some awareness of the research, the researcher or the University. This can facilitate participation but researchers should still ensure that consent is informed and freely given, as per the guidance above regarding avoidance of pressure or undue influence.
The University template advert should be used where possible though it may be necessary to have a shorter post or image that then links to further information. Researchers must ensure that they have permission to advertise using that medium / in that online location and that it is appropriate to the context.
Email mailing lists
If using an email mailing list to recruit participants, researchers should first obtain the permission of the mailing list owner. It is critical that when sending bulk emails the BCC function is always used to avoid sharing the recipients’ email addresses with the other recipients.
One of the most common methods of recruiting online is through use of posts on social media and ‘snowballing’ by asking others to share the advert.
If using social media to recruit participants, researchers should follow the guidance on the Social media research guidance page.
The University template advert should be used where possible though it may be necessary to have a shorter post or image that then links to further information.
‘Crowdsourcing’ - participant recruitment services
There are several participant recruitment services online, such as Prolific or PureProfile. These are often used to recruit for online questionnaires and surveys, though are also used to recruit for other types of research.
There are advantages to using these types of services to recruit participants:
- there is a large pool of potential participants
- participants often have been pre-screened and completed demographic information, so it is easy to identify those who meet the inclusion criteria
- it is a quick and accessible way of recruiting
- participants can be compensated for taking part.
There are also some disadvantages:
- there may be over-representation from specific socio-economic groups
- participants may be ‘professional’ survey completers
- the motivation to participate may differ from other methods (i.e. financial versus altruistic)
These can mean that there may be limits to how generalisable the results of the study can be.
Ethical considerations in using online recruitment methods
There are several ethical considerations when using online recruitment methods:
- in using these methods, are participants fully informed and freely giving consent?
- are any payments, as delivered through crowdsourcing services, proportionate, reasonable and unlikely to unduly influence consent?
- If using a crowdsourcing site or social media, how much data does the third party retain about participants and their participation in the research?
- How will any data retained by the third party be used?
It may be that participants decision to share their data with a third-party service precedes their decision to participant in the researchers specific research project and so there is an element of individual autonomy.
If researchers decide to use online recruitment methods it is important that they fully consider the ethical issues (as with offline methods), detail these in the ethical application and discuss with their supervisor or the School ethics committee if there is any concern over which is the most appropriate option.
If there are concerns over transfer of personal data, researchers should consult with Data Protection firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Baltar, F., & Brunet, I. (2012). Social research 2.0: virtual snowball sampling method using Facebook. Internet research. doi:https://doi.org/10.1108/10662241211199960
Bender, J. L., Cyr, A. B., Arbuckle, L., & Ferris, L. E. (2017). Ethics and privacy implications of using the internet and social media to recruit participants for health research: a privacy-by-design framework for online recruitment. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 19(4), e104.
Chandler, J., & Shapiro, D. (2016). Conducting clinical research using crowdsourced convenience samples. Annual review of clinical psychology, 12. doi:https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-clinpsy-021815-093623
Cunningham, J. A., Godinho, A., & Kushnir, V. (2017). Using Mechanical Turk to recruit participants for internet intervention research: experience from recruitment for four trials targeting hazardous alcohol consumption. BMC medical research methodology, 17(1), 156. doi:https://doi.org/10.1186/s12874-017-0440-3
Gelinas, L., Pierce, R., Winkler, S., Cohen, I. G., Lynch, H. F., & Bierer, B. E. (2017). Using social media as a research recruitment tool: ethical issues and recommendations. The American Journal of Bioethics, 17(3), 3-14. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/15265161.2016.1276644
Gleibs, I. H. (2017). Are all “research fields” equal? Rethinking practice for the use of data from crowdsourcing market places. Behavior Research Methods, 49(4), 1333-1342. doi:https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-016-0789-y
Khatri, C., Chapman, S. J., Glasbey, J., Kelly, M., Nepogodiev, D., Bhangu, A., . . . Committee, S. (2015). Social media and internet driven study recruitment: evaluating a new model for promoting collaborator engagement and participation. PloS one, 10(3). doi:https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118899
Kosinski, M., Matz, S. C., Gosling, S. D., Popov, V., & Stillwell, D. (2015). Facebook as a research tool for the social sciences: Opportunities, challenges, ethical considerations, and practical guidelines. American Psychologist, 70(6), 543. doi:https://doi.org/10.1037/a0039210
Lane, T. S., Armin, J., & Gordon, J. S. (2015). Online recruitment methods for web-based and mobile health studies: a review of the literature. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 17(7), e183. doi:https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.4359
O'Connor, A., Jackson, L., Goldsmith, L., & Skirton, H. (2014). Can I get a retweet please? Health research recruitment and the Twittersphere. Journal of advanced nursing, 70(3), 599-609. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/jan.12222
Quach, S., Pereira, J. A., Russell, M. L., Wormsbecker, A. E., Ramsay, H., Crowe, L., . . . Kwong, J. (2013). The good, bad, and ugly of online recruitment of parents for health-related focus groups: lessons learned. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 15(11), e250. doi:https://doi.org/10.2196/jmir.2829
Rattani, A., & Johns, A. (2017). Collaborative partnerships and gatekeepers in online research recruitment. The American Journal of Bioethics, 17(3), 27-29. doi:https://doi.org/10.1080/15265161.2016.1274800
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Students at the University are often recruited for research projects as they are easily accessible to others within the University.
While students are often willing and able to participate, it is important to still consider any ethical issues and to reassure student participants:
- that any data they provide will not impact their studies, academic achievements or relationships
- that they are free to decline to participate with no impact on their studies, academic achievements or relationships
- that their data will be treated in confidence
Researchers should also consider the guidance on dependent relationships if the researcher holds a position of authority, such as being a tutor, lecturer or holding a position in a student society.
Recruiting students from specific Schools or programmes
It is good practice to get approval from the School or programme lead before placing any posters within the School or advertising directly to their students i.e. via School-specific mailing lists or events. Contact the target School’s admin office or School ethics contact for advice.
Students in some Schools may be more frequently targeted for recruitment due to internal School research projects, the nature of their studies. It is important that these groups are not subject to undue pressure to participate, oversampling or ‘survey fatigue’. To protect against this, some Schools prefer to moderate direct or targeted recruitment of their students.
School specific guidance for recruitment of students
School of Medicine
If recruitment is based specifically on the requirement of being a matriculated student within the Faculty of Medicine (e.g. “Undergraduate medical students”) as opposed to being matriculated by general programme of study (i.e. “undergraduate students at the University of St Andrews”), then researchers should approach:
The Director of Teaching (email@example.com) for all undergraduate (i.e. BSc Hons or ScotGEM students) or postgraduate taught students.
The Director of Postgraduate Studies (firstname.lastname@example.org) for all other PG student groups within the Faculty.