Detecting, Preventing, and Responding to “Fraudsters” in Internet Research: Ethics and Tradeoffs

Teitcher, Jennifer E. F.; Bockting, Walter O.; Bauermeister, José A.; Hoefer, Chris J.; Miner, Michael H.; Klitzman, Robert L.

Research that recruits and surveys participants online is increasing, but is subject to fraud whereby study respondents — whether eligible or ineligible — participate multiple times. Online Internet research can provide investigators with large sample sizes and is cost efficient. Internet-based research also provides distance between the researchers and participants, allowing the participant to remain confidential and/or anonymous, and thus to respond to questions freely and honestly without worrying about the stigma associated with their answers. However, increasing and recurring instances of fraudulent activity among subjects raise challenges for researchers and Institutional Review Boards (IRBs). The distance from participants, and the potential anonymity and convenience of online research allow for individuals to participate easily more than once, skewing results and the overall quality of the data.

Duplicate entries not only compromise the quality of the research data, but also impact the studies’ budgets if not caught before participants’ payment — a growing concern with decreasing NIH funding lines. Though reports have begun to explore methods for detecting and preventing fraud, the ethical issues and IRB considerations involved have received little systematic attention. Researchers and IRBs may be unfamiliar with these issues and thus be overly restrictive or lax with Internet research protocols.


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The Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics

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July 21, 2020