Ethical and practical challenges of online research interviews

A recent research paper has shone a light on the ethical and technological challenges of interviewing humanitarian practitioners in post-conflict settings. We summarise its main reflections in this post.

By Carolina Are

Ethical and practical challenges of online research interviews

Researchers routinely use Skype and other software to conduct interviews – especially when working on humanitarian issues where there are challenges accessing the field site. Yet there are very few practical or ethical guidelines for doing this work. Written by Chiumento, Machin, Rahman and Frith, ‘Online interviewing with interpreters in humanitarian contexts‘ explores the opportunities and challenges researchers face while using this method.

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Unstable settings, such as conflicts or areas affected by humanitarian disasters, routinely prevent researchers from accessing interviewees. New technologies enable us to conduct online interviews with NGO workers in humanitarian and cross-cultural contexts, but they come with new ethical and methodological challenges.


The research by Chiumento, Machin, Rahman and Frith is presented as a case study, leading from Chiumento’s experience of conducting online cross-language qualitative interviews online. Chiumento chose to interview her participants online  due to security considerations preventing travel to one of the research sites.

Between September 2014 and February 2015, Chiumento conducted 35 individual in-depth interviews across three South Asian countries and in the UK. All three countries have recent histories of conflict and disaster which meant the in-country Internet and electricity infrastructures were poor, particularly in rural sites, including bandwidth limitations and unpredictable power cuts. Twenty-five interviews were conducted with interpreters, with the remaining participants choosing to speak in English. All interpreters were hired in-country following selection interviews, with attention paid to participants’ preferred languages.

Strengths and Challenges of Online Interviewing

The flexibility of online interviewing accommodates participants with busy schedules.  However, clearly, the physical separation of researcher and interpreter from the participant is one of the main practical and methodological challenges of online interviewing.

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Digital and Language Divide

Firstly, high-speed Internet access and computer literacy of all parties are not always a given in post-conflict or humanitarian scenarios. Potential technical challenges included sound quality or webcam issues, a time-lag in the audio/video feed meaning sound and/or video is relayed slower than real time, and potentially lost data as a result of technological failure. The researchers attempted to meet this challenge by using the Adobe Connect™ platform, initially tested with a colleague based in another room in the office hosting the researcher, and secondly through a group session on informed consent conducted prior to interviews. This informed consent session provided all parties with an introduction to the online format, as well as providing participants with an introduction to the mediation of conversations by an interpreter.

Ethical Obligations

Conducting interviews online means adapting researchers’ ethical obligations towards their participants. They can no longer fully guarantee the confidentiality of information shared and the privacy of conversations, as they often have no control over the location from which participants conduct interviews, or over the way internet platforms retain information. Yet, establishing a “safe” online environment can act to encourage participant disclosure in interviews. To help achieve this safety, Chiumento, Machin, Rahman and Frith’s used Adobe Connect™ and created an online secure, password-protected site.

Another issue is securing physical space and privacy for participants. The online format means the researcher can’t always control the participant’s environment to ensure confidentiality. For instance, in Chiumento, Machin, Rahman and Frith’s study the majority of interviews participants were based in a shared office in a hospital and had little to no alternative to change spaces, leading to interruptions or the presence of others in the background.

The impossibility of knowing when people were or weren’t present during interviews could lead the researchers to misinterpret visual cues, such as smiles or turning of heads, which could be non-verbal cues relating to the conversation, or a response to the presence of others in the room. To meet this challenge, Chiumento, Machin, Rahman and Frith encouraged participants to use earphones, but it is possible participants self-censored their responses for fear of saying the “wrong” thing in front of colleagues. To try to mitigate this, the interviewers kept notes about their perceptions of what was happening in the environment around the participant; for example, “Participant looking at someone else in room and shaking head in response to a question/comment from them”, to document the potential role of the local surroundings.

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Rapport Building

Aside from the lack of in-person interaction in online interviews, the presence of an interpreter, an additional unknown third party, may also have impacted upon rapport building. The use of mainly male interpreters whilst the majority of participants interviewed online were female may also potentially have influenced narratives.

Safety and Ethics in Online Interviews

Online interviewing is not a flawless technique to research data and to protect participants. However, it is a valid means of research when all others fail to grant at least some degree of protection. As Chiumento, Machin, Rahman and Frith conclude:

“In settings that are unstable, the concept of researchers protecting participants becomes less applicable, with the assumptions of ideal field sites where researchers are the ones in a position of control no longer holding true. […] In these cases, online interviewing is an alternative format when the “ideal” of in-person interviewing becomes impossible.”

Read ‘Online interviewing with interpreters in humanitarian contexts‘ is a research paper written by  Anna Chiumento, Laura Machin, Atif Rahman and Lucy Frith in the International Journal of Qualitative Studies on Health and Well-being.