Recommendations for internet-based qualitative health research with hard-to-reach populations

J. Michael Wilkerson, Alex Iantaffi, Jeremy A. Grey, Walter O. Bockting, B. R Simon Rosser

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

96 Scopus citations


Researchers new to online qualitative health research frequently have questions about how to transfer knowledge of offline data collection to an online environment. In this article, we present best-practice guidelines derived from the literature and our experience to help researchers determine if an online qualitative study design is appropriate for their research project and, if so, when to begin data collection with a hard-to-reach population. Researchers should reflect on administrative, population, and data collection considerations when deciding between online and offline data collection. Decisions must be made regarding whether to conduct interviews or focus groups, to collect data using asynchronous or synchronous methods, and to use only text or to incorporate visual media. Researchers should also reflect on human subjects, recruitment, research instrumentation, additional data collection, and public relations considerations when writing protocols to guide the research team's response to various situations. Our recommendations direct researchers' reflection on these considerations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)561-574
Number of pages14
JournalQualitative Health Research
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2014

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article: The Sexually Explicit Media (SEM) Study was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health Center for Mental Health Research on AIDS (R01MH087231), and was conducted with the approval of the University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board (#0906S68801). All Gender Health was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) Center for AIDS Research (9R01HD057595-04-A1), and was conducted with the approval of the University of Minnesota Institutional Review Board (#0801S24641). A Study of Polyamorous Parents was an unfunded and unaffiliated study.

Funding Information:
The protocol should also include a process for identifying and documenting a reportable event as defined by the researchers’ institution. If participants will be able to reach a project voicemail or autoreply, we recommend including a statement referring participants to their local 911 services (or equivalent if outside of the United States) in the event of an emergency. This is especially important if participants might experience psychological or emotional distress as an artifact of their participation in the research study. We also recommend compiling a referral list for the geographical areas in which researchers will be recruiting participants and to log all communications with participants in a secure database. When collecting data from hard-to-reach populations or about sensitive topics, we recommend obtaining a Certificate of Confidentiality if the study is funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.


  • Internet
  • gays and lesbians
  • gender
  • research, qualitative
  • teaching/learning strategies
  • technology, use in research


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