Letter to the editor: an unethical survey

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In response to ‘Drugs survey: 1 in 3 reveal they have used drugs‘ by Elliot Davies and Carrie Magee (20 February 2014)

Sir,

The issue of student drug use is important and of interest to many researchers, including research students, but The Saint‘s drugs survey [was] unethically done. The ethics of researching illegal activities is a huge consideration in the social sciences, and The Saint has ignored this issue. Informed consent of participants, even for surveys, is essential for good research. While you are independent of the University, if you had submitted a submitted an application to the University Teaching and Research Ethics Committee (UTREC) before carrying out the survey, as all University researchers using human subjects must, including for all student projects, you would have failed.

The application would have required the Saint to consider the confidentiality concerns of such a survey. When I examined the survey, it was very poorly done. You made no effort to inform participants how their data would be collected and stored. It said nothing about if the data would be anonymous. As Union President Chloe Hill pointed out, IP addresses could be collected, meaning confidentiality was not protected. There was also no information on the resulting data will be reported. With this key information missing, there is no way any respondent could give informed consent for their participation. Why is informed consent important? See the examples of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, the Stanford Prison Experiment and the Milgram Experiment – examples any psychology undergraduate could provide. 

There are additional errors in basic survey design. How do you know if the respondents are St Andrews students? Have you examined other drugs surveys to check their findings and see what questions they asked? There are many studies investigating drug use and do so ethically, such as the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, which included surveys on drug use in American university students. In fact, I recommend visiting http://www.monitoringthefuture.org/ where they describe its survey design and administration.

Even if The Saint thinks it’s just doing a ‘little fun survey,’ those of us who use such research techniques know that there is a great deal of consideration needed before undertaking such work. I am sure there are other ethical violations and errors in survey design in addition to the points I have mentioned. I ask other research students, both UG and PG, to point them out. This unethical survey also damages us as students learning to do research.  We have chosen to come to St Andrews for its prestigious research, to which this survey could do irreparable harm. The Saint does represent the University by association, as it is run by university students. Its ‘independent’ actions could harm the University’s important research reputation if The Saint‘s actions are reported on a national scale, where the distinction of its independence could easily be lost.

Yours sincerely,

Melissa Lent Schapero
PhD Candidate
School of Psychology and Neuroscience

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