Impact Has The Internet Had On Research Ethics Media
Increasing use of the Internet has impacted on the conduct of qualitative research, offering innovative research methods and readily available data for studying 'natural discourse'. Data occurs in a variety of forms, such as chat rooms, forums, newsgroups and listservs. One of the main areas in which this data has been used to date is in health research, online support groups being a rich source of information on the experience of patients. As Eysenbach and Till (2001) note,
'qualitative analysis of material published and communicated on the internet can serve to systematise and codify needs, values, concerns, and preferences of consumers and professionals relevant to health and health care.' (p.1103)
However, any academic research involving human participants needs to address ethical issues, and the use of Internet data has raised a number of ethical concerns: in particular, the distinction between public and private information on the Internet, informed consent, confidentiality and misinterpretation of information.
The ESRC Research Ethics Framework (2005) states six principles of ethical research which need to be considered: GENERAL FRAMEWORK
â- Research should be designed, reviewed and undertaken to ensure integrity and quality.
â- Research staff and subjects must be informed fully about the purpose, methods and intended possible uses of the research, what their participation in the research entails and what risks, if any, are involved.
â- The confidentiality of information supplied by research subjects and the anonymity of respondents must be respected.
â- Research participants must participate in a voluntary way, free from any coercion.
â- Harm to research participants must be avoided.
â- The independence of research must be clear, and any conflicts of interest or partiality must be explicit. (p. 1)
The growth of the Internet has given rise to discussion of how adequate current ethical guidelines are in relation to conducting research online. A key aspect of consideration is how the notions of 'public' and 'private' can be understood in an online context. Walther (2002) uses an analogy between online forums and public space, arguing that publicly accessible content available online should be treated in the same way as the recording of conversations at a public meeting. He argues that an expectation of privacy by participants of online forums is misplaced and
'any person who uses publicly-available communication systems on the Internet must be aware that these systems are, at their foundation and by definition, mechanisms for the storage, transmission, and retrieval of comments.' (p. 207)
Walther suggests that analysing publicly-available data which is archived on the Internet does not constitute research of human subjects if a researcher does not identify the subjects. Therefore, his position is that, in these circumstances, it is not necessary to obtain informed consent. LOOK AT CONTEXT
Hookway (2008) considers the notions of 'public' and 'private' in relation to the use of blogs. He argues that blogs are in the public domain and it is therefore not necessary to obtain informed consent from bloggers. Hookway cites Waskul and Douglas (1996) who argue that researchers should be aware of how online users consider the nature of their online communication. Hookway thus suggests that, as blogging is a public act of writing, accessible blogs are not private. As an exception, he views blogs which are marked as 'friends-only' as private, as this is how they are perceived by the bloggers themselves.
Kitchin (2002) discusses the issue of privacy in relation to her own doctoral research, which utilised data from an Internet newsgroup for Alcoholics Anonymous. In Kitchin's opinion, 'using the NG data did not violate privacy, as participants had given up their privacy, and even their anonymity, by posting to a public NG.' 163 Furthermore, she argues that 'public self-promotion shows that cyber participants clearly do not value privacy'. 171.
In contrast, Eysenbach & Till (2001) argue that the norms, codes and aims of online groups need to be considered, as do participants' own perceptions of privacy. They cite the example of SickKids, which is a discussion group for ill children, with an item on the group information file stating that "adults will NOT be permitted to participate on this list as its purpose is to provide kids with their own personal place to share." (p 1104) As Eysenbach and Till suggest, this implies that children who contribute to this group are unlikely to consider their posts as public information. I would argue, following Eysenbach & Till, that members of an online group which requires registration or subscription are likely to view the group as 'private'. King (1996), cited in Berry (2004), argues that the 'perceived privacy' of these online groups should be respected. As Berry also contends, the assumption that all content on the Internet is public is challenged by the rise in the use of secure networks such as intranets.
Furthermore, the nature of the topic and potential harm need to be considered when utilising online data. I would argue that particular care needs to be exercised when research involves 'support groups' on the Internet. As Sharf (1999) notes, these groups often involve information being shared by vulnerable people on sensitive topics, and
'ironically, the anonymity provided by electronic communication, such as the choice not to reveal one's name or the shelter from being evaluated visually, may encourage verbal intimacies that would be withheld in other interactive contexts.' (p. 246)
Researchers may be seen as 'harming' members of online support groups who may be vulnerable. Eysenbach & Till (2001) use the example of a group member quoted by King (1996) who left a mailing list after discovering that a researcher had been monitoring discussions. The individual posted the following comment:
'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 up to be dissected by students or scientists.' (p. 1104)
Eysenbach & Till argue that informed consent should be sought for the use of online group postings if some harm may occur to the group, or individual members of that group, as a result of publication.
Sharf (1999) makes a distinction between online research where individuals have chosen to participate, and research where individuals are unaware that their online posts would be used for research purposes, the latter situation creating more of an ethical dilemma for researchers. In Sharf's own research, she subscribed to a Breast Cancer listserv, identifying herself as an academic researcher in her posts (she attributes this decision to her awareness of the personal nature of the topic and respect for members of the listserv). Furthermore, she contacted by email any person whom she wished to quote in her research in order to seek informed consent. Sharf notes that some of her colleagues were of the opinion that it was unnecessary for her to seek informed consent, as the discourse occurred within a public forum. However, she argues that by obtaining consent in this way, her research was not at the expense of members of the Breast Cancer listserv, and was strengthened by the feedback given to her by participants (it gave the individuals a chance to confirm that their comments had been interpreted correctly).
If a researcher or ethics committee decides that it is necessary to obtain informed consent, the method of obtaining consent needs to be considered. Eysenbach and Till (2001) discuss two possible approaches to this: firstly, emailing all members of the group informing them of the research and giving them the opportunity to withdraw; secondly, seeking consent from individuals whose postings will be used in the research. It is argued that the group may be affected by the first method, as communications may change as a result of individuals knowing that their postings are being monitored, or members may choose to leave the group as a result of the research. The second approach is more time consuming, and relies on individuals responding to the request for consent before their statements can be utilised.
The use of statements posted online also raises the issue of anonymity. Kitchin (2002) argues that
'not knowing the location of a poster prevents true identification of a participant. Thus anonymity â€¦ may be more assured.' (p. 166)
However, as Eysenbach & Till (2001) note, Internet search engines create a problem for the use of verbatim quotes from newsgroups, even if the quote is anonymous in the research report. A quote could be entered into an Internet search engine which indexes newsgroups, and the original message and email address of the poster could be retrieved. Thus anonymity is not assured.
Bruckman (2001) proposes use of a scale when considering to what degree individuals' identities will be disguised in research studies. The scale ranges from 'no disguise' (where individuals are credited for their work and their names are used with permission) to 'heavy disguise' (where any identifying information is changed and verbatim quotes are not used). SENSITIVE TOPIC HEAVY DISGUISE The use of this scale ensures that vulnerable subjects could be disguised in a research publication.
A Carnegie Mellon study on cyber-porn, which was published in the Georgetown Law Journal, provides an example of how ethical considerations may be breached in online research. Thomas (1995) considers the ethics of this study, which involved an analysis of text descriptions from bulletin board systems on pornography, and usage statistics from a University IT system on users accessing pornographic Usenet newsgroups. Thomas argues that the study breached the principle of 'informed consent' as the users did not know that they were the subjects of a study, and had not been provided with information in order to give voluntary consent. They also had no opportunity to withdraw from the study.
Furthermore, Thomas argues that the data was obtained deceptively, as the researchers engaged in 'chats' with the administrators of the bulletin board systems in order to obtain information, but did not identify themselves as researchers. The bulletin board systems and usage statistics used were not publicly accessible, and the users believed that their access to pornographic materials was private. Given the sensitive nature of the topic, the researchers exposed the subjects to potential harm by publishing the data.
Berry (2004) argues that the concept of privacy is misleading when used in relation to the Internet. He suggests a more useful concept to use is 'non-alienation' (defined as 'avoiding taking the content of online communication out of its context of original occurrence without the explicit permission of concerned parties' p. 327), proposing 'open source ethics' as a method to develop an ethical framework for online research. Berry suggests that researchers should employ this principle of 'non-alienation', respecting the online communities they are utilising. In recognition of the concern some researchers express about the emergence of an 'over-arching code of ethics', Berry contends that flexibility should be an important component of guidelines for online researchers. He discusses the Free/Libre and Open Source (FLOSS) community who create software which they make available on the Internet free of charge. As Berry notes, FLOSS research can be seen to be in the public sphere, but he suggests that it should not necessarily be seen as available for use in a research project, as FLOSS developers may not consent to their data being used for this purpose. He proposes that researchers should commit to an 'ethics of care' to guide their online research, taking into account the social structure of the community, concluding that an open source approach to ethics can provide the flexibility necessary for the online researcher. He suggests that principles followed in the FLOSS community (such as openness, collaboration and mutual support) should also be followed by researchers.
Turning to formal ethics codes, Haggerty (2004) argues that an 'ethics creep' is taking place where formal regulatory systems (e.g. Ethics Committees or Research Ethics Boards) are expanding their remit to include new practices and institutions, and intensifying the regulation of practices currently within their remit. He believes this will ultimately hamper the ability for some university researchers to carry out their work. Haggerty explores the notion of 'harm' used by ethics boards, arguing that the regulatory system results in researchers having to consider 'subjectively assessed worst-case scenarios rather than empirical consideration of what is likely or probable.' (p 403)
'Ethics creep' and its potential consequences can be explored in the context of the use of Internet material in research. Haggerty addresses the issue of informed consent in relation to online research. He argues that if researchers are required to obtain informed consent from web posters, then university research will be disadvantaged, as other professions (e.g. journalists) will use information retrieved online without the need for these formal processes. There is also a risk that researchers will choose not to undertake online research, missing out on valuable data available on the Internet. As Haggerty suggests, 'researchers will choose to employ certain types of unproblematic and often predictable research methodologies rather than deal with the uncertainty and delays associated with qualitative, ethnographic, or critical scholarship which do not fit easily into the existing research ethics template.' p 412
Thus, Haggerty is of the opinion that there is a clear distinction between following the procedures of ethics boards and conducting ethical research. In contrast, Guillemin and Gillam (2004) view procedural ethics (seeking approval from an ethics committee) and 'ethics in practice' (issues which arise whilst the research is taking place) as sharing some common ground. They argue that, whilst ethics committees have a role in requiring the researcher to consider and reflect on ethical principles, ethics in practice requires the researcher to consider ethical issues once the research is being undertaken. They suggest that reflexivity has an important role to play in this context, citing Mason's definition of reflexive research 'that the researcher should constantly take stock of their actions and their role in the research process and subject these to the same critical scrutiny as the rest of their "data"' (G & G, p 274). Guillemin and Gillam argue that by adopting this strategy, the researcher will continually scrutinise their interactions with participants, allowing them to consider issues of privacy and harm. 'It is in these interactions that the process of informed consent really occurs - not on the pieces of paper that an ethics committee peruses.' (p.275) They contend that if individuals give free and informed consent to be involved in research, then they become participants rather than subjects.
It is necessary for existing ethical research guidelines to be modified in relation to their use for Internet research, for example, clarification on the distinction between 'public' and 'private' space on the Internet. Sharf () suggests her own guidelines for researchers on the use of naturally occurring discourse on the Internet:
The researcher should contemplate whether or not the purposes of the research are in conflict with or harmful to the purpose of the group.
The researcher should clearly introduce himself or herself as to identity, role, purpose, and intention.
The researcher should make a concerted effort to contact directly the individual who has posted a message that he or she wishes to quote in order to seek consent.
The researcher should seek ways to maintain an openness to feedback from the email participants who are being studied.
The researcher should strive to maintain and demonstrate a respectful sensitivity towards the psychological boundaries, purposes, vulnerabilities and privacy of the individual members of a self-defined virtual community, even though its discourse is publicly accessible. (pp. 253 - 255)
Conclusion - draw together main points. Sharf guidelines, FLOSS, G&G
Article name: Impact Has The Internet Had On Research Ethics Media essay, research paper, dissertation