Today I received the following email entitled "Participate in University of Victoria Research":

Dear StackOverflow member,

I am writing you to request your participation in a brief survey (5-10 minutes max). You have been selected from a pool of individuals from the Stack Overflow community. The purpose of this study is to try to understand how gamification elements [badges, reputation] effects users motivation to post both questions and answers on stack overflow. This could help us to understand how gamification elements could be used to encourage users motivation to contribute.

Survey Link: omitted

Your participation in the survey is completely voluntary and all of your responses will be kept confidential. This survey has been designed and complies with University of Victoria HREB policy and therefore, "potential participants can reasonably expect to regard the possible harms implied by participation to be no greater than those encountered by the participant in those aspects of [their] everyday life that relate to the research." No personally identifiable information will be associated with your responses to any reports of these data and at any time if you do wish to withdraw you may even after submitting approval for inclusion in the study.

The University of Victoria Human Research Ethics Board has approved this survey. If you have any comments or questions, please feel free to contact us.

Thank you for your consideration.

Arturo Reyes Lopez, MSc. Student
Department of Computer Science
University of Victoria, Canada

The email was sent using MailChimp, and because of this I can see that I'm part of a mailing list entitled "About Reputation from 10,000 to inf.":


Looks like they've scraped a bunch of 10k+ reputation users and (in my case, at least) visited their listed GitHub pages and extracted their publicly-visible email addresses.

I certainly don't mind this as it was a conscious decision of mine to list that particular email address publicly, however I'm creating this post here as I'm not sure if SE agrees with this practice. I don't know whether it may be worth reaching out to the University of Victoria to allow them to carry out their research in a more, I don't know, ethical way, perhaps?

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    Highly relevant: Ethics of scraping "public" data sources to obtain email addresses on Academia Stack Exchange. – ff524 Nov 4 '15 at 16:38
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    We're working on this, it actually happened twice today. None of those emails are from us, we think the intentions were totally benign, though - but we're working on making it stop. Robert or I will update here once we can. – Tim Post Nov 4 '15 at 17:06
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    I would be quite suspicious, as we had very strict anti spam laws come into effect July 1 this year, and this instance would certainly be a violation (no previous engagement where you asked to be emailed before they contacted you). – Canadian Luke Nov 5 '15 at 9:58

Legal and privacy issues aside, if someone has contacted you via unsolicited email, they are almost certainly violating a code of standards for conducting academic research.

I am not an expert in this subject, but the ethics of using public data sources to obtain email addresses seems reasonably well established in academia. I cannot attest to the standards of any particular institution, but from what I have read, researchers are generally required to show that participants in the email sample were not recruited via unsolicited email invitations. And if the participants came from an email list, they would have to verify that the individuals had a "reasonable expectation" that they would receive email contact for research specifically.

I hope this goes without saying, but Stack Exchange was not a party to this survey, so no such relationship would seem to exist.

It's nice to see that they are disclosing fully who is the sponsor of this survey (so you can make an informed judgment), but from what I understand, such email invitations should also clearly communicate the name of the sample provider (✓ check), the relationship of the individual to that provider and how that information was obtained, and clearly offer the choice to be removed from future email contact. I did not receive the original invitation, but from what you provided above, much of that information is incomplete.

This is not a legal judgement — nor do I know how universally the ethics policies I describe above apply — but if the University of <Anywhere> feels that the unsolicited collection of email is a valid way to conduct academic survey research, I would be greatly disappointed.

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