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

Posted: Aug 29, 2017
Am J Bioeth. 17. 3. 3-14.
KEYWORDS: Social Media, Non-Cancer, Cancer


'Normalizing' social media approaches by comparing them to traditional approaches may ease the path to implementation. 

Why this item may be useful

Despite its growing popularity as a recruitment tool, there is no specific regulatory guidance and few resources to guide investigators and IRBs on the use of social media for research recruitment. Just as with traditional methods of recruitment, social media may be passive or active. Posting flyers is the 'offline' correlate to placing ads in patient support group websites. Approaching an oncology patient in clinic on the basis of the research staff's knowledge of his or her disease state is an example of traditional offline recruitment, while E-mailing a member of a patient support website for breast cancer on the basis of her online activity and membership in the group is an example of active online recruitment. 

The authors propose a strategy for planning for planning a social media recruitment technique:

1. Whenever possible, identify a more familiar offline variant or equivalent of the proposed social media technique.

2. Identify the ethical considerations that bear on the offline version and bring them to bear on the online version. 

3. Identify any ways the online version differs from the more traditional offline equivalent, and evaluate this difference in terms of relevant ethical norms and considerations. 

The authors explore the two most salient ethical considerations: respect for privacy and investigator transparency. 


  • 3 case studies describe scenarios for use of social media and examination of the relevant issues.
  • Appendix A: Investigator Checklist of Proposing Social Media Recruitment
  • Appendix B: IRB Checklist for Evaluating Social Media Recruitment Proposals