Surveys 101: Guarantee privacy when asking about illegal activity

Colleges balk at government survey on illegal filesharing that fails to provide anonymity to respondents.

The Government Accountability Office was asked by Congress recently to send out a survey investigating illegal file sharing on colleges campuses. Unfortunately, the survey did not guarantee anonymity and colleges probably aren't lining up to take the survey, reports Inside Higher Ed.

The questionaire was sent out to more than 100 colleges without the usual cover letter stating that replies would be kept confidential. It isn’t yet clear whether the information about individual institutions would be made public, or if the public report would present general information.

“A survey like this could be a valuable means of finding out the state of the environment. But the decision not to make the replies confidential “can hurt the survey by limiting the responses and participation not because colleges necessarily have anything to hide, but because survey participants tend to be more responsive when their privacy is protected," said Mark A. Luker, vice president of Educause.

The survey was commissioned after higher education leaders fought off an attempt to impose legislative requirements to have colleges crack down on illegal file sharing. Colleges were opposed to the legislation, saying that it imposed unnecessary regulation and that they are already doing quite a bit to stem the problem.