Online research ethics

Advances in online social technologies have lead to the formation of an abundance of online platforms and communities.

Because of this, researchers are increasingly using the internet to find participants for their studies. With internet research practice continually developing, new ethical issues inevitably arise.

One important issue which often comes in to dispute is that of what constitutes ‘privacy’ in an online environment?  Is it ethically OK to use the words or details of a person when they believe to have been communicating in private, completely unaware of ‘invisible audiences’? Some could argue ‘yes’ if the platform used for communication is publicly accessible. Personally I would feel very uncomfortable using information of this sort without gaining full consent from the individual due to the damage and distress which may result.

Informed Consent is a key research principle and is designed to ensure research participants are fully aware of how their information will be used: providing a clear outline of the potential harms and benefits of their participation, as well as the confidentiality and privacy protocols before they agree or decline to take part.

Although I have not yet undertaken research of this nature I can imagine gaining consent from online-participants can prove very difficult due to the “face-less nature” of the internet. How can the real identity of a participant be established when it is part of the culture of an internet community to adopt virtual identities which differ from their day-to-day social identities? Or does this not matter so much?

The University of Lancaster Social Science Research Ethics website site suggests that opting for full anonymity of participants could help to solve problems relating to identity and help prevent unsuitable or vulnerable individuals, becoming a part of the research project.

The final question I would like to raise is: Can deception be justifiable in certain circumstances?

Researchers may feel the need to deceive in circumstances where revealing the truth could severely undermine results. Examples of deception online include covert observations of public chat rooms, and hiding the true purpose of a study to participants.

Perhaps I am naïve, I have little research experience, but I believe that if you are planning on misleading your participants you must be completely sure that the outcome will be positive for them and/or society as a whole, and that no one will be harmed unnecessarily, including you, the researcher.

For research which could potentially expose criminal activity many more ethical and moral issues come in to play including the law which demands researchers disclose information on participants whom have committed or are plotting to commit a crime. This could prove very tricky I imagine if your aim is to give insight in to the behaviour of certain criminals whilst retaining anonymity for yourself and participants. For an insightful and detailed look in to these issues I recommend reading “Anonymity and Confidentiality” (Charles, Crow, Heath, Wiles: 2006) available on the National Centre for Research Methods website.

I will be taking serious consideration of the issues disscussed within this post for my upcoming research into Audio Sampling Rate. I need to find a way of maximising the effectiveness of my subjective tests whilst ensuring my approach is ethical and fair.

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One Response to Online research ethics

  1. Helen says:

    Great post Greg, and you obviously have a good grasp of the main issues surrounding internet research. This is the most important thing – as long as you are aware and mindful of the complexities, you are in a position to make informed choices when it comes to researching through the online medium. I came across another paper yesterday which you might also find useful

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