I recently received an invitation to answer a questionnaire from a student in the social sciences. The results will be used as part of the research for a Master's thesis.

The invitation describes the subject of the research, and then describes in detail that the current thinking is that social phenomenon A is caused by social phenomenon B, but that the student wonders whether social phenomenon C is an additional cause.

It seems to me that I have just been told what answers the student is hoping to get. Isn't that too much information? I understand that you explain to the respondents that the questionnaire will be used for scientific research (for ethical reasons) and what the general subject of the questionnaire is (so that they can decide whether they want to take part), but if you tell them much more about the aim of the study, then surely this risks influencing their answer?

Respondents may consider the assumption made by the student, jump to a conclusion about its correctness, and then choose their answers to bring across this opinion. Respondents who are helpful by nature, may simply answer what they think the student wants to hear.

Would I be correct in thinking that it is unwise to give this much information about the purpose of a questionnaire, and the results may be biased because of this? Or is this common practice, and are there ways to remove this bias from the results?

1 Answer 1


In the US at least, an Institutional Review Board is in charge of human research and researchers need to justify to them their informed consent process. If they want to use deception or be unclear about the purposes of research they must justify it. Generally the less sensitive the information and less invasive the methodology the less requirement there is to disclose, and on the other side high potential for bias is an argument for being vague or even deceptive.

The researchers you encountered will have to be open about what their participants knew when they participated and that will affect how their readers interpret the study. This person is a masters student, they're probably new at this, maybe they just designed a bad survey and no one helped them do better. For example maybe there was a form that said "describe the research for your participants" and they added all this detail when the form preparer expected them to write "This study is about social phenomena."

It's possible you're part of an experiment and the instructions are part of a manipulation and the test is to see how different instructions influence the answers - basically to answer with data exactly the bias question you are posting here.

It's possible that after participating in the study you will be informed more openly about the actual purposes of the research if it was made unclear or deceiving.

  • 2
    I suspect that a lack of experience and of guidance by a supervisor may indeed be the major factors here. There are other aspects of the invitation which seem somewhat unprofessional.
    – engineer
    Commented Mar 14 at 1:52

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