Gathering Data for Lifelong Research

November 14, 2014

I have heard this question many times, without any definite answer. When you prepare a survey for your dissertation, can you have additional questions (open ended comments on your topic) that you might not use for your dissertation, but will continue exploring after your dissertation? Would not that help a fresh PhD to continue building a research agenda? Is it unethical to have such additional questions?


Dear studentno1,

Thank you for your question! It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to respond to someone concerned with the important issue of ethics!

Having more data than not enough is a good thing as your question suggests. As you probably know, to conduct the survey you will need to obtain approval from your university’s Institutional Review Board (IRB) who will need to review a study proposal to ensure that your study adheres to the ethical treatment of human subjects. Your proposal should state very clearly what you plan to do, what your purpose is, and how you plan to do it. It will most likely need to include the survey questions and the consent form for participants to participate in your study. If this is an online survey, this form can become the first part or webpage of the online survey. This letter should explain, at a general level, why you are collecting this data, what the study’s purpose is, and how you will protect the identities and privacy of the participants. In the proposal you will need to include substantially more detail about how you will accomplish this, including discussing where and how you will store the data.

Adding extra questions probably won’t be a problem for the IRB. However, if you plan to use the data (either from extra questions or the non-extra questions) in a brand NEW study with a new purpose, the IRB may frown upon this. In that case, you can avoid problems by submitting a new proposal for the new study, referencing the original study’s IRB number as the source of data.

It’s also important to consider the impact these extra questions may have on the study itself. For example, extra questions will make your survey longer. This may fatigue your participants, discouraging them from finishing, and thus lower your response rate and leave gaps in your data set. One way around this is to have a question at the end of the survey that asks them if they would be interested in participating in a follow-up interview. Then you are not risking dropout but are still planning ahead and ensuring you have enough data to pursue future work.

Good luck!

Dr Laura

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