Ethical Practices of Campus Surveysexamined

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By Raven TysonAssistant City Editor

The practice of using monetary incentives to encourage students toparticipate in campus surveys is common, but is it ethical?

The San Diego State Foundation and Associated Students, both ofwhich are university auxiliaries, have conducted surveys with the useof incentives.

The SDSU Foundation conducted one last spring, which gaugedpeople’s opinions of The Paseo, a planned area on the southern edgeof campus that would include restaurants, shopping centers, a hotel,a movie theater and student housing.

The survey was sent to almost 4,000 staff and faculty members viaSDSU e-mail accounts. The survey was also sent to 16,000 studentswith Rohan e-mail accounts. Of that, only 440 faculty and staffmembers and 800 students responded to the e-mail.

However, students were offered an incentive for theirparticipation. Scholarships totaling $1,000 were awarded to sixstudents at random. One student won a $500 scholarship.

Assistant philosophy professor John Berteaux, who teaches anethics course on campus, told The Daily Aztec last month thatalthough he didn’t know the entire process that the SDSU Foundationused, offering scholarships to survey participants could bequestionable.

If people know about an incentive and then are supposed to respondto questions regarding that topic, they could change their answers inorder to get a prize, he said.

Fred Pierce, College Community Redevelopment manager, told TheDaily Aztec last month that he felt there was no conflict of interestbecause students were chosen at random.

Marketing professor Donald Sciglimpaglia, who conducted the surveyfor the Foundation, said this practice is very common in surveyresearch as a way to increase the response rate.

“You’ll find it discussed in most survey research or marketingresearch textbooks,” Sciglimpaglia said. “In most cases, if you havebeen sent a questionnaire in the mail, it probably was accompanied byan incentive of some sort.”

Sciglimpaglia said one common factor in survey sampling is to tryto maximize the likelihood that someone responds to the study. If theSDSU Foundation had not used an incentive, the rate of response wouldcertainly have been lower.

Sciglimpaglia also said he has used this technique many times.

Like the SDSU Foundation, A.S. offered prizes to students whoparticipated in their survey about the Aztec Center renovationproject.

Currently, A.S. is thinking of revamping the center, which wouldinclude more office space for student organizations, in addition tostudent study and lounge space and a place for students to hang out.

A.S. Executive Director Dan Cornthwaite said focus groups and aWeb-based survey have been conducted to assess student, faculty andstaff opinion of the project.

More than 100 students participated in the focus groups held Sept.24 and 25. Participants were given $15 for their time.

Cornthwaite said the $15 was used for practical consideration. Hesaid the money was probably going to be the best way to ensure theyreceived responses.

“Time is valuable,” he said. “They have a variety of obligationsand commitments that make it difficult for them to take advantage ofother volunteer stuff or requests for information. And frankly, weknow students can use the money.”

In addition to the focus groups, A.S. mailed two postcards toabout 5,000 students encouraging them to go to a Web site thatharbored the survey. The students were randomly selected from theuniversity database by choosing every sixth name on the list.

As an incentive, students were given the chance to win a DVDplayer, a picnic cruise and three VIP packages to the AztecRecreation Center.

Just under 600 students responded to the survey. The winners werechosen at random from a hat, literally, Cornthwaite said.

Professor of Child and Family Development Tracy Catalde, whoteaches an ethics course on campus, said it is common to pay thosewho participate in research a sum of money.

The ethical standards in all of the academic and clinical fieldsspecify that participants are being paid for their time rather thantheir responses whether they are favorable or unfavorable to theoverall goals of the study, she said.

The ethical standards also require that those who are in contactwith the participants do not have access to the knowledge of theoverall goals of the study, what the study is trying to prove. Forexample, the Foundation wanted to see if people in the campuscommunity approved of The Paseo.

Those who collect data are trained by the researcher and toldnothing of the overall goals of the study, she said. Hence, they arenot able to give away anything to the participants in the study.

Catalde said it is often very difficult to obtain participants forresearch; thus, payment is a common practice throughout the researchcommunity, not just in marketing research. All of the major drugcompanies use the same practice as do those who do medical researchat any major university. But the catch is, they must follow theseethical standards.

Social science junior Joe Barros said offering a prize puts peoplein a good mood, and these surveys ultimately pay for someone’spositive opinion.

“It’s a way of directing people’s attitudes to answer thequestions a certain way,” he said.

Cornthwaite, however, said that the incentives did not alter theway participants responded for the Aztec Center survey.

Some disapproved of the expansion concept entirely.