Ethics in Market Research Data Collection: The Essential Guide

Image of the post author Jodie Shaw

Data collection comes with a host of unique challenges, and one of the most significant considerations for researchers is the topic of ethics in market research. It is essential to think about the ethical implications of your market research — are you collecting data in the right way without infringing on other people’s right to privacy, security, and the control of their data?

Before you start your data collection work, you need to ensure everyone on the team is aligned and understands their ethical responsibilities. Failing to do this could result in legal woes, a damaged company reputation, and other serious problems.

This article will show you why ethics are so important in data collection, what you need to be aware of, and how to ensure your data collection always falls on the right side of what’s considered ethical.

What are ethics in data collection?

What exactly do we mean when we talk about ethical data collection? Let’s delve into the definition to clear any misconceptions and ensure the rest of the article makes sense.

Data collection ethics is all about the right and wrong in collecting, analyzing, processing, and sharing data.

This article will focus on data collection for market research purposes. The data we’re talking about here mainly refers to the personal data of our research participants.

Ethics has been an essential consideration for as long as we’ve been collecting data. By understanding it, you can ensure that the data you collect and the research you produce is ethically sound, respects the rights of your subjects, and avoids landing you in legal trouble.

Why are ethical considerations so important for data collection?

There are several key guidelines market researchers have to follow so they can adhere to ethical norms when it comes to data collection, such as:

・If you prioritize ethics, it usually results in better research.

When you care about the truth, accuracy, and minimizing errors, your findings will be more reliable and lead to more valuable conclusions, benefiting your business.

・If you take ethics seriously, it shows that your brand is trustworthy and has integrity.

Conversely, suppose you’re violating ethical norms with your research; this will reflect very poorly on your reputation and (among other things) make it tough to find future participants for market research.

・You want to stay on the right side of the law.

Today there are more data privacy regulations than ever before, like Europe’s GDPR and California’s CCPA. Unethical data collection can lead to legal trouble and harsh financial penalties.

Guidelines: How to ensure your data collection is ethical.

Follow the guidelines detailed below to ensure your data collection is ethical.

Always obtain the proper consent.

When you collect data for market research, you’re using the personal data of your participants. When someone answers survey questions, takes part in an interview or focus group, or participates in an experiment, the data they share with you is protected by law in many jurisdictions.

From an ethical standpoint, an individual’s data is their personal property. As a result, you have to ensure you have the right to collect and use that data. Make sure to draft a consent agreement that informs your participants about your research and clearly outlines how you intend to use their data. This refers to asking for informed consent — in other words, your participants should know what they’re consenting to instead of being asked to give a blanket agreement.

In short, always get explicit consent from your research subjects before you collect or use any of their data, and always make sure they are given all the facts upfront about how you will use it. This is one area to work with an experienced legal team.

Always be clear about privacy and confidentiality.

You should be clear from the beginning about how private and confidential your participant’s data will be. For example, when publishing a market research report, will you use the names of your subjects or provide any information that could be linked back to their identity? If so, it’s essential to let them know before you collect any data.

You also need to consider technical capabilities in this area. Are your systems secure enough, or are they vulnerable to hacks and data breaches? You can still be legally punished if you lose sensitive user data due to a cyberattack in many cases.

Personally identifiable information (PII) covers many different data types, like a person’s full name, address, credit card information, or identification number.

Avoid bias.

As an experienced researcher will tell you — it’s all too easy to rig research in your favor. Wording specific questions in a certain way, focusing on some areas over others, guiding your subject in a particular direction with verbal nudges and body language — all these things can impact the result of your research.

This isn’t just unethical; it also leads to less accurate data. Pushing your research subjects towards specific answers might fulfill short-term goals, but in the long-term, it leads to a poorer understanding of your market and a shaky foundation for future research. Ensure all your moderators and researchers are aware of this and trained to avoid even subconsciously leading people in a specific direction.

Get regular insights

Keep up to date with the latest insights from our research as well as all our company news in our free monthly newsletter.

Nine ways to reduce bias in your market research

1. Minimize confirmation bias.

It’s common for teams to embark on a research project with a clear idea of what they want to discover. Maybe you want to know that all your participants love your planned products, your latest marketing campaign is destined for success, or a specific demographic is a big fan of your brand.

This can lead to confirmation bias, where researchers hone in on answers they like and gloss over ones that don’t support their favorite hypothesis, leading to skewed results that sound encouraging at first but ultimately don’t benefit the company. Be aware that your expected or desired outcome may not happen, and train your research teams to be level-headed and impartial.

2. Be aware of question order bias.

Question order bias is when the order of your questions can influence participants to give a specific answer or be more favorable to a particular idea. For example, if you ask the following questions:

  1. What do you like about the new iPhone?
  2. Can you give an example of a great tech company?

Here, the participant is already thinking about iPhones and Apple after the first question, and this could lead them to give a similar answer to question two, even if they might have said something else had the order of questions been different. Be aware of the order of your questions, and always try to word them as neutrally as possible.

3. Be transparent about your data collection methods.

When you publish your research, you should make your methodology available to anyone who wants to read it. Be clear about what data collection methods and sources you used, whom you spoke to (being careful to avoid sharing personally identifiable information), your goals, the sample size, how you selected participants, and more. This helps people check your findings’ accuracy and shows that you’re credible and professional.

If there are any limitations or anything you’re uncertain about, disclose this. Don’t state something as a clear fact when it isn’t. Certain parts of your findings might need future research to confirm them, and you should clearly state this.

4. Maintain integrity

It may seem obvious, but it’s paramount to collect data with honest intentions and hold yourself to these standards. If you collect data for reasons that might negatively impact others, this is unethical, even if your collection methods and other factors are legitimate.

Make sure the questions you ask are relevant to your research goals. Asking questions — particularly personal ones — about your subjects that don’t inform your research is unethical.

5. Don’t cause harm to your participants.

You should always identify and avoid anything in your research process that could cause harm to your subjects. This could be physical harm — for example, asking participants to sample food to which they may be allergic — or emotional trauma, like asking people to revisit uncomfortable memories or placing them in situations where they might not feel at ease.

Anything that could harm your participants in any way is unethical. Make sure they understand the process from the beginning, regularly check in on them, and be sure to disclose anything that could potentially cause problems.

6. Don’t waste people’s time.

Your participants are busy people. They don’t have vast amounts of time to dedicate to your research, and they’re helping you out by agreeing to take part. Be respectful of your participants’ time and don’t keep them waiting longer than necessary. Aim to keep your research process tightly organized and always inform people about delays and other time constraints as soon as possible.

7. Be aware of unexpected outcomes.

Even the most meticulously conducted research can sometimes have unexpected consequences. It can be deemed unlawful if individuals suffer harm due to your study.

As a result, you need to take extra care to anticipate and prevent any unexpected adverse outcomes from your research. You won’t know for sure until the study is published, but you can minimize the chances of unintended consequences by being cautious and diligent.

8. Correct errors.

It’s normal for research to contain one or two errors. In itself, that’s not unethical, nor does it necessarily mean your research isn’t valuable. However, it is imperative to correct the mistakes as quickly as possible and edit your research report to make this clear.

If you don’t correct errors when you become aware of them, this is unethical as you’re knowingly publishing misleading information.

9. Work with an experienced research team.

The best way to ensure your data collection is ethical is to work with a team of experts. Research professionals understand the ins and outs of data ethics, and they know what to do and what to avoid. They also have an in-depth and current understanding of the legal aspects of market research. At Kadence, we have years of experience helping companies worldwide conduct market research, and ethics is always a priority. Get in touch with us to find out more.