How do we tackle the ethical issues of online research?

George Denison
|October 24, 2023

Ethics are vital to research – not least the way researchers collect data. Of course, there’s the moral responsibility. But ethical issues should also concern researchers because of how they impact data quality. In this post, we’ll outline four ethical issues of online research and how to overcome them.

What are the ethical issues of online research?

When it comes to collecting data for online research, the main ethical issues are:

Fair pay

Starting with arguably the simplest criteria, researchers should compensate participants fairly for their time. This should be in line with the local minimum wage, depending on their location. But it’s not just about the amount they’re paid. Going beyond that, researchers should pay participants in a timely manner with no need to chase payments or face uncertainty.

Working conditions

Ethical issues with working conditions are a little more complex. They may refer to simple measures like assessing and mitigating health and safety risks. But it also covers problems such as overwork and unreasonable competition between participants.


Another ethical issue of online research relates to the contracts (or lack thereof) for participants. All too often, participants don’t have access to clear terms and conditions for their working arrangements. Alternatively, contracts may be inconsistent with a participant’s terms of engagement with a platform. Platforms can change contracts or terms of engagement at the drop of the hat.

Data quality

People who are paid poorly, overworked, or subject to unfair contracts will generally produce a lower standard of work.

That’s backed up by a 2017 study by Lovett et al. They found that the quality of data provided by MTurk workers correlated with how fair they perceived a study to be. Studies with fair pay and clear details resulted in “best efforts” and “quality data”. In contrast, poor payment or misleading details increased the likelihood of low-quality data.

How to overcome ethical challenges

While ethical shortcuts might save time or money for some platforms, they’re bad news for researchers. Thankfully, platforms can put measures in place to uphold ethics, keep participants happy, and keep data quality high.

Minimum pay threshold

Firstly, a minimum pay threshold is a must. Ideally, this should match the local minimum wage. But that can prove difficult given the variation of time spent by participants.

At Prolific, we believe that everyone’s time should be valued. That’s why we have a strict minimum pay threshold of £6.00/$8.00 per hour. This helps to ensure participants are paid well for their time and effort. What’s more, we recommend researchers offer an hourly payment of at least £9.00/$12.00, where possible.

Cost calculator for remuneration

On many platforms, poor pay is simply a result of clients not knowing how much to offer. To combat this, a cost calculator can advise researchers on what to pay. You can tailor the calculation to your study. It can take into account the number of participants you’ll need, the required distribution, and other relevant factors. Prolific uses this system as a step towards fair remuneration.

Sanctions for unfair rejections

In terms of working conditions, one major issue for participants is the unfair rejection of submissions. This can become even more problematic if platforms allow clients to do so without consequence. That’s why Prolific has introduced a clear formal system for sanctioning clients for unfair rejections.

Process for worker disputes

Disputes with clients also affect participants’ contracts, working conditions and pay. Without a process in place, participants can feel helpless, causing those issues to worsen. The solution is simple – Prolific provides due process for workers in disputes with clients.

Waitlist to mitigate oversupply

The issue of competition among workers arises from an oversupply of participants. Having an excessively large workforce competing for jobs can drive costs down, leading to other ethical issues. To mitigate this, Prolific has introduced a waitlist. It manages participant sign-ups to control the number of workers competing for jobs.

Notice period for changes to participant terms

With contracts, a common issue is the lack of notice for material changes. Prolific has adopted a 30-day notice period for any changes, to provide greater fairness to workers. As a result, participants have a reasonable amount of time to review and prepare for any changes to their working arrangement.

How different platforms perform on ethical issues

The findings from the Fairwork Cloudwork report speak for themselves. Prolific is top of the leaderboard for minimum standards of fair work with a 7/10 rating. Most notably, Prolific was the only platform to meet the majority of Fairwork’s criteria.

Jovoto came in second with a 5/10 rating, followed by Workana (4/10) and Appen (3/10). At the other end of the scale were:

  • 2/10 - 5 euros, Clickworker, and Scale / Remotasks.
  • 1/10 - 99designs, Fiverr, Soy Freelancer, and Upwork.
  • 0/10 - Amazon Mechanical Turk, Freelancer, Microworkers, and PeoplePerHour.

Fairwork awarded points based on ten thresholds for fair work – one point per threshold met. They split them across five categories with two thresholds for each of the following:

  • Fair pay
  • Fair conditions
  • Fair contracts
  • Fair management
  • Fair representation

Don’t suffer from ethical issues in online research

The verdict is in – Prolific is the most ethical choice for online research. Unlike many of the alternatives, we have measures in place to ensure participants get paid and treated fairly. In turn, this means better data quality for researchers.

If you need data for a research project, don’t sacrifice ethics and data quality. Sign up to Prolific and maintain the highest standards of data on an ethical platform.