Since starting research into Social Technologies, the subject of ethics has come up several times. When conducting any sort of academic study, it is important, in fact mandatory, to have ethical approval, based on the internationally recognised Nuremberg code. Guidelines laid out by researchers such as Grimes, Fleishman and Jaegar (2009):
“Informed consent is the concept that a participant understands the facts and implications of a given situation. In the research context, informed consent is an important ethical component, as informed consent gives the power to the participant and prevents abuses from a lack of understanding.”*
The considerations of ethics when researching online are very different to doing a study ‘IRL’. You don’t see the people in person, or perhaps even speak to them except via written conversations, so the guidelines which are often laid out for doing experiments are much harder or impossible to apply. It’s a divisive topic, often changing between countries that have very different attitudes towards research ethics in general.
There is also the consideration of how much information is just ‘out there’. People post something on a forum for example. Their comment is public, accessible and can be referenced. That person apparently chose to put something down in writing that the whole world can read. But does that mean that we can morally take that information and use it?
To quote Asa Rosenberg (2010):
“…though something may be accessible, the general public (including researchers) may not be the intended audience. Researchers must therefore base their ethical decisions on a community’s purpose and participants’ expectations of privacy. Without taking consideration to personal privacy, researchers might instigate feelings of intrusion and exposure, or attract unwanted attention to online communities.”**
The biggest consideration of internet research is violation, whether accidental or deliberate, of a person’s privacy. Even without specific details, the more people put of themselves online, the easier it becomes to join the information up and discover someone’s identity.
This is something I have already tried to consider in some of my posts. For example, in The Internet and Anonymity, it might appear that I am being quite vague about my sources, yet it is because I don’t wish to mention anything about the online communities I have experienced. The ones I have participated in are small and close knit subcultures with a clear sense of identity. Unless I inform them that I am using their community as a research resource, and gain approval from all involved (maybe 30-40 regular users) it would not be right for me to paraphrase quotes or mention specifics which could ‘expose’ the website. This is particularly relevant when I am using my personal opinion on the material which is already openly accessible, since as a user and participant I am more aware of meanings, of culture-specific slang, or of events and incidents that might only be alluded to in the public domain.
*Fleischman, K., Grimes, J., & Jaeger, P., “Virtual Guinea Pigs: Ethical implications of Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds” International Journal of Internet Research Ethics (Vol. 2 Feb 2009) http://ijire.net/issue_2.1/grimes.pdf
**Rosenberg, A., “Virtual World Research Ethics and the Private/Public Distinction” in International Journal of Internet Research Ethics (Vol 3. Dec 2010) http://ijire.net/issue_3.1/3_rosenberg.pdf