e-Research Ethics: A Note from Mallory Wober

Mallory Wober has written me about the ethics of research within online communities. Since the issues he raises are likely to become more prominent in new online spaces such as Facebook and Second Life, I am posting his note and will then respond:

Hi Bill
I sent you a piece last month, from The Psychologist, by David Giles and now there is what I find an interesting letter which follows that …
It strikes me that some people may not perceive and operate according to the right (?) rules in particular internet areas – if it is some therapeutic meeting place perhaps then they should have a kind of visible ‘net’ strung round the site reminding users they are in “private” space and reminding visitors that they are expected to obey the rules – but what sanctions might there be, amongst insiders, to keep out or even punish exploitative interlopers? I reckon that the insiders just have to accept the risk of being used.
I wonder if and whether you already know all about this and about all the answers and mechanisms and devices for improving things
One move I would like to see (against all chance of any such thing coming about) is for the silly-joke term ‘blog’ to be banished and replaced by two or more terms which indicate whether the contribution is indeed equivalent to a letter to a conventional (national?) newspaper, or whether the contribution is some sort of private whisper among friends …
One thing missing in this scene is any effective and informative audience research – which would let users know that this or that site can or does have so many people read it – I am not sure whether the places where one sees counts of ‘hits’ (another deplorable word) give a visitor – or a user – the whole story ….
anyway, cheers

The letter he is referring to is:

Research, ethics and the internet
IN defending the practice of some internet researchers of ‘lurking’ on discussion forums – effectively conducting research on people without any attempt to obtain their informed consent – David Giles (‘The internet, information seeking and identity’, July 2007) suggests that posting a message on a health-related discussion forum on the internet is equivalent to writing a letter to a conventional newspaper. However, there is evidence that the ‘lurking’ of researchers on websites and discussion forums can cause not only distress to individual users but also damage to the integrity and viability of the sites, many of which now specifically state that their presence is not welcome.
King (1996) illustrates this point with the final message of a member of one health website, who stopped using it after realising that it had been monitored by a researcher: ‘When I joined this, I thought it would be a support group, not a fishbowl for a bunch of guinea pigs. I certainly don’t feel at this point that it is a safe environment, as a support group is supposed to be, and I will not open myself to be dissected by students or scientists.’
It is hard to imagine that anyone would consider it ethical for researchers to secretly record the discussions of an ‘in-person’ support group, just because the group happened to meet in a ‘public’ place. Why then is it acceptable to do the equivalent online?
It is possible to gain informed consent from the users of this type of website. However, it is time-consuming and there is always the risk that someone will decline, thereby denying the researcher a potentially interesting study. I suspect that this has more to do with why some choose to overlook this process than the issue of whether or not these forums are in the ‘public’ domain. A number of ethical guidelines have been proposed for conducting research on the Internet (e.g. Eysenbach & Till, 2001; King, 1996). However, to date, no consensus appears to have been reached and researchers seem to be free to take up whatever position suits them. Perhaps it is time for the Society to take a lead on this matter and produce some specific ethical guidance for online research?
Finally, in relation to the internet, I would argue that it is a mistake to think of it merely as the latest addition to the media, since it is so much more than simply a method of expressing and communicating information, like TV, radio and newspapers. The internet is an environment, within which all kinds of human interaction take place. The nature of this environment allows people to interact in new and innovative ways, many of which provide interesting topics for research. However, it is important not to forget that, regardless of how they choose to present themselves online, the people that are behind the interactions are no less real than if you had bumped into them in the street and, as such, they deserve the same ethical treatment as everyone else.
Darren Baker
East London & City Mental Health Trust

Eysenbach, G. & Till, J.E. (2001). Ethical issues in qualitative research on internet communities. British Medical Journal, 323, 1103-1105.
King, S.A. (1996). Researching internet communities: Proposed ethical guidelines for the reporting of results. The Information Society, 12, 119-128.

One thought on “e-Research Ethics: A Note from Mallory Wober

  1. Mallory,

    I agree that there are major ethical issues concerning what information social scientists and others should observe online. However, I don’t believe that analogical reasoning will work well since the nature of these spaces are not exactly equivalent to more traditional media, such as the letter to the editor or private whisper. Many online spaces are genuinely new environments for which the norms have behaviour are still being worked out. I am not excusing researchers who might violate someone’s sense of privacy or do anything else that might cause ‘distress’ to an individual user, but simply assure you that social scientists and Internet researchers more generally are debating these issues, writing codes of practice, examining what is being done, and more. I am confident that appropriate norms for users and researchers will take shape in due course.

    Now, with respect to your dislike of the terms ‘blog’ and ‘hits’ — I’m afraid that the Internet is changing the English language (and other languages) in ways that researchers can only observe. As a broadcaster, you must be tuned in to the ways in which television and radio have shaped expressions.

    Wonderful to hear from you, Bill

Comments are most welcome