Using Social Media as a Research Recruitment Tool: Ethical Issues and Recommendations

Posted: Mar 06, 2017
American Journal of Bioethics. 3. 3-14.
KEYWORDS: Consent, Provider Influence, Conflict of Interest, Social Media


A roadmap for putting social media recruitment in proper ethical perspective as a valuable recruitment tool is provided. 

Why this item may be useful

The use of social media as a recruitment tool is increasing, however there has been no specific regulatory guidance to help investigators navigate the ethical issues such use raises. A methodology for evaluating the ethics of the use of social media mechanisms for recruiting participants to clinical trials is offered. This methodology, a nonexceptionalist approach, offers that whether active or passive (see definitions below), social media recruitment should be evaluated in substantially the same was as more traditional methods. The authors propose this 3-step strategy

  • Identify a more familiar offine varient or equivalent of the social media technique being considered.
  • Identify the substantive ethical considerations that bear on the offline version and apply them to the online version (respect for privacy, investigator transparency).
  • Identify ways the online version differs from the more traditional offline equivalent, and evaluate this difference in terms of relevant ethical norms and considerations. 


  • Passive recruitment: distributing recruitment materials with the aim of attracting potential participants to contact the research team for more information and consideration of enrollment.
    • 'Offline' example: posting flyers in buses
    • 'Online' example: placing ads in patient support group websites
  • Active recruitment: research staff members approach and interact with specific individuals with the aim of enrolling them in research, usually based on knowledge of eligibility criteria.
    • 'Offline' example: approaching an oncology patient in clinic based on knowledge of disease state. 
    • 'Online' example: E-mailing a member of a patient support group website for breast cancer on the basis of her online activity and membership in the group.
  • The article contains an investigator checklist for proposing social media recruitment.