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I would be interested in conducting a survey of Japanese learners of English to find out what they find difficult about learning English. I'm a university graduate, so no longer part of the university in effect, and am not connected to any research institution, nor any business. I would be an individual acting out of my personal academic interest.

My question is, are there rules or laws that prevent me from doing this? I would have no access to journals or similar, so the most I could do is publish anonymised data on a blog or Reddit or similar. I could collect consent from each participant, but if the survey hadn't been approved by any particular ethics committee would this act be essentially meaningless?

I'd appreciate any advice or input on this matter.

  • Even if you can legally talk to these people and collect data (a big if), it may still be that you cannot publish your findings. – GEdgar Sep 10 '18 at 12:23
  • There exist independent review committees that review research for a fee. If you were really interested in it, you could have them do it. – Azor Ahai Sep 10 '18 at 17:54
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Since you ask for legal advice, only a lawyer in the country in which you intend to do the research can really answer your question with authority.

However, the usual reason that it is useful to be part of a University or Firm when doing research, is that they normally employ lawyers that can answer these questions. Affiliation isn't essential, but good advice is. A university may (will in the US) have an office that will help assure that you don't overstep legal or ethical boundaries.

I would try to visit a local research institution and see if they can give you guidance on your proposal. There are some things you aren't allowed to ask human subjects and some restrictions on data use, etc., but these differ by country. Perhaps a local university publishes its guidelines and they may be available to you even when unaffiliated.

Different countries also are likely to have a bureau whose purpose is to publish legal and ethical advice to researchers. A local search may turn up the information you need.

But proceed cautiously in any research that involves human subjects in any way.

  • I like your answer and you cover what I would write in mine. The only thing I would add is that Universities have IRBs and without IRB approval most human subject research cannot be published. – Richard Erickson Sep 10 '18 at 15:20
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I think consent is a good idea even if the survey hasn't passed through an ethics committee. A lot of the review around human subjects is straight-forward: are you asking people to do anything different than they would encounter in their normal lives? Would any of it be potentially uncomfortable, distressing, or dangerous to them? Will they be identifiable personally in the data, for example with their name, address, zip code, IP address, etc.? For any of those, tell them up front what the procedure and risks of participation are, and whether they want to continue. That is essentially the consent process, and is ethically appropriate whether or not you publish, etc.

All that said, people fill out surveys all the time. Keep the participation reasonable and emotionally neutral, and I anticipate no problems with your survey. It will not be publishable in a peer-reviewed journal. Have a plan for de-anonymizing the data. Notice there are strict rules about holding identifiable data, such as the new GDPR privacy law in Europe: https://www.insight.mrc.ac.uk/2018/04/16/gdpr-research-changes/

  • I don't understand why you think it wouldn't be publishable. – Buffy Sep 10 '18 at 13:02
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    @Buffy - I imagine because all published research must go through ethical vetting processes, otherwise it's not research, it's a random guy with a clipboard. I'm fine with not publishing it, I'm just wondering what are the problems with being a random guy with a clipboard. – Lou Sep 10 '18 at 13:28
  • @Lou, you say "all published research must go through ethical vetting processes" and I'm not sure why, though it may be the law in some places. I doubt that it is a universal. The reviewers of any submitted manuscript may have something to say about the ethics of any methodology, of course, as I would expect. Social Science research isn't my field, of course, but I've not heard such a rule mentioned anywhere before. Also, editors might be skeptical of a manuscript if you aren't from a recognized place, but I doubt that it would be an absolute block. Am I wrong? – Buffy Sep 10 '18 at 13:38
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    @Buffy All the reputable social science and public health journal I have submitted to have required a statement about ethics approval as part of the submission for any article involving human participants. Failure to go through ethics approval is grounds for desk rejection (though I guess someone could lie as it's not checked). For example, bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/submission-guidelines/… and biomedcentral.com/getpublished/…. – JenB Sep 10 '18 at 14:08
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    @Buffy Yes, there are recognised ethics committees that can be accessed by independent researchers and getting approval from one of those is necessary to make the research publishable. – JenB Sep 10 '18 at 14:30
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I would be interested in conducting a survey of Japanese learners of English to find out what they find difficult about learning English...My question is, are there rules or laws that prevent me from doing this?

There are rules, but they are country dependent. For instance, if you survey Japanese people resident in the EU, then you are governed by GDPR.

  • It also seems possible that a publisher is also bound by legal constraints in their own country, even if that is different from the country of the researcher and/or the subjects. – Buffy Sep 10 '18 at 14:38
  • The OP stated their objective as publishing "on a blog or Reddit or similar," so publishers don't seem relevant. Disregarding that momentarily: Although I agree that publishers are bound by the legal constraints in countries they operate in, I don't think this precludes publication of research that could not have been legally conducted in such countries (at least, in many cases). Nonetheless, other barriers might be introduced, e.g., objections from reviewers. – user2768 Sep 10 '18 at 15:53

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