ESRA logo

ESRA 2023 Glance Program

All time references are in CEST

Creating a Physically and Psychologically Safe Research Environment

Session Organiser Dr Mariel Leonard (DeZIM)
TimeTuesday 18 July, 14:00 - 15:30
Room U6-28

Research topics, locations and interpersonal contexts can put interviewers, analysts, observers and participants at risk of immediate or future physical and psychological harm. The details of life experiences that researchers collect and participants share are known to surface intense emotions or reactions. Trauma-related risks are not limited to studies generally recognized as sensitive or dangerous – including addiction, assault, violence, death, self-harm, forced migration, economic inequity, exploitation or racism. Unexpected situations can arise during any research interaction be it in-person, by telephone, virtual or analytic. Protocols and standards do not yet exist to define, support and help manage research environments in ways that mitigate these risks for all involved. Additionally, when high intensity or high risk encounters do occur, there is little guidance as to what constitutes the appropriate response, care or treatment. Researcher and participant safety should be woven into the fabric of the project lifecycle, including in the initial decisions related to choice of topic, team composition, community context, provider training, participant preparation and consent through to data collection instruments and protocols proceeding to analysis and reporting. It is time for the field of public opinion research to develop best practices for creating and maintaining safe research environments.

We invite contributions that discuss methods of monitoring and protecting the physical and psychological safety of all research participants, including monitoring respondents and researchers, providing training or developing safety protocols for respondents and researchers, or safeguard researchers during the analytical process. We also welcome contributions that share guidelines or best practices for determining the sensitivity of a survey or research, and expanding ethical oversight to include researchers.


Measuring the efficiency of RDD sampling in a national research study on women victims of domestic violence in Brazil.

Ms Marija Nasevska (Sample Solutions) - Presenting Author
Mr Carsten Broich (Sample Solutions)

Domestic violence has always been a difficult and challenging subject to confront for research studies. The sensitive topic and difficult to reach target group require a specific sampling method that would avoid biased results and non-response error from certain groups. The different gender, educational level, religion or income can all be variables that can significantly influence the outcome and the representativeness of the study’s results.

This paper showcases the strengths and weaknesses of screened random-digit-dialling (RDD) approach for surveying specific population groups.

The paper describes the process by which the RDD mobile sample is generated, using the official numbering plan of the country, covering all generatable telephone combinations, and following the general distribution of telephone respondents. After which the paper showcases the sample’s performance and finally, the sampling methods are described together with weighting procedure in order to account for the response bias and potential causes of the over/underrepresentation of certain demographics as a result of the sampling error.

Safe and Sound: Providing Vulnerable Respondents with a Safe Online Research Environment

Mr Joost Leenen (Centerdata - Tilburg University) - Presenting Author
Mr Arnaud Wijnant (Centerdata - Tilburg University)
Professor Peter van der Velden (Centerdata - Tilburg University)

A face-to-face interview setting can be conducive to the interaction between a researcher and respondent, especially when the topic of conversation is considered sensitive. Concurrently, this interviewing method can also be a risky situation for potential (inter)personal physical or psychological conflicts. An online survey environment can provide certain benefits for interviewing respondents about sensitive topics.

Victim Support Netherlands is an organization that supports victims of a crime or accident. In collaboration with the Dutch non-profit research institute Centerdata at Tilburg University, the online research panel ‘Victim Support Netherlands panel’ was recently set up. In this panel, victims share their experiences and opinions and regularly complete online questionnaires about the events they have experienced, as well as their emotional and financial well-being. Given the predominantly traumatic nature of the interview topics, the physical and psychological safety of the respondents is paramount.

Through this online setting, panel members experience physical and psychological safety, as they can decide to complete questionnaires at a time and place that is convenient and comfortable for them. Psychological safety is also provided by the careful wording of survey questions, the anonymity provided by an online environment, and the ability to contact support when needed. Also, by ensuring their anonymity is guaranteed, the online environment facilitates a place where respondents feel safe to be vulnerable and entrust the researchers with answers that are valuable for victim research.

In this presentation, we elaborate on the ethical aspects of the online survey topics, under what conditions the Victims Support panel was established and how respondents’ physical and psychological safety is monitored as a Victims Support panel member.

Finding a Balance Between Survey Requirements and Mitigation of Risks in the Context of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Ms Anouk Zabal (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences) - Presenting Author
Dr Britta Gauly (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)
Dr Sanja Kapidzic (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)
Ms Silke Martin (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)
Ms Natascha Massing (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for the Social Sciences)

The implementation of a field study is one of the prerequisites for participating countries to take part in the main data collection of PIAAC, the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. The field study for the second cycle of PIAAC was scheduled to take place in the spring of 2020. However, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic brought all activities to a halt and the field study was subsequently postponed by one year. As the pandemic developed, it became clear that it would remain a challenge in 2021, and that the face-to-face fieldwork for the field study would take place in a dynamic COVID-19 situation, both in terms of incidence and restrictions. This contribution discusses the approach taken in Germany to conduct fieldwork safely despite these circumstances. Risk assessments were carried out through various iterations and strategies were correspondingly developed. The aim was to reach a balance between achieving the basic objectives of the PIAAC field test while taking adequate measures to reduce the risks involved in face-to-face fieldwork.

The focus was on reducing potential health risks for interviewers and respondents. In addition, the reputational risk for the institutions involved and the face-to-face field itself were also considered. To this end, the fieldwork objectives for Germany were redefined to cover only essential elements, while remaining in compliance with the international PIAAC standards. This included a substantial adaptation of the field study design and adding a comprehensive COVID safety protocol. The main challenge ensued from having to react responsibly, ethically, and with a thoughtful flexibility in a new and uncertain situation.

Systematizing Identification of Sensitive Topics and Contexts

Dr Mariel Leonard (DeZIM) - Presenting Author

This paper presents a review of the concept of a "sensitive topic" in research. Sensitive topics, such as those related to abuse, sexual orientation, and mental health, are well-known challenges for researchers conducting both quantitative and qualitative research with respondents. However, even seemingly benign topics can be sensitive depending on context. For example, questions about marital status could be sensitive and even distressing for someone newly divorced or widowed.

In order to effectively manage potential harm to research participants, researchers must first be aware of the potential for harm or distress. However, there is no universal standard for identifying a potentially sensitive topic or context. Too stringent a standard has the potential to classify all topics as sensitive or as having the potential of more than minimal harm, thus reducing the likelihood for ethical approval. Too lax a standard could lead to no protections implemented for any topic, thus opening respondents up to risk of distress.

In this paper, I review the literature on sensitive topics and identify available standards for identification of sensitive topics and concepts. Based on common themes from the literature, I propose a systematic approach to identifying sensitive topics and contexts, and discuss implications for future research.