The use of the World Wide Web in social research requires special consideration. It is a relatively new research tool that provides a unique research environment because:
- The distinction between private and public space is not always clear;
- Data can be easily collected without consent;
- The participants and the researcher may never meet or speak to each other and the identities they may choose to assume may be ‘virtual’, bearing little resemblance to their ‘real’ self.
Not only does this create ethical implications for the collection of data in terms of privacy, anonymity and confidentiality (see 'Anonymity and Confidentiality' in Core Issues section), but it also points to the need to raise awareness about concerns regarding the mistaken inclusion of vulnerable or unsuitable populations (e.g. children) in a research project (see pages on Research With Vulnerable People and Groups), who are not identifiable because of their use of pseudonyms.
These issues are addressed below in the section on using the Web for data collection. A further section briefly addresses the ethical concerns of privacy when using the Web for data storage and dissemination.
Using the web for data collection
The perceptions people have of what constitutes public and private domains on the Web may not correspond with their actions when they come to log on. Waskul (1996) suggests that people use public domains in cyberspace for private conversations in much the same way as they would in physical public spaces. He gives the following scenario:
You are seated on a bench in a public park with a group of close personal friends. Small talk quickly dissipates into issues of a more serious nature. In the course of confiding personal and private issues to your friends, you turn your head to discover someone tape recording the discussion. Outraged you confront this person, who proceeds to explain some ambiguous research project, and attempts to justify the act by citing the public context of your discussion… after all, this is a public park.”
(Waskul, Dennis. 1996. Ethics of Online Research: Considerations for the Study of Computer Mediated Forms of Interaction.
Researchers should not assume that where access to the Web is “public”, then the information available in such domains is also “public” and ‘up for grabs’ (within the constraints of Copyright Law). Extracting data in such a manner from the Web contravenes some basic ethical principles:
- The author’s privacy has been invaded;
- Informed consent has not been obtained from the author;
- The anonymity of the author is at risk.
There are currently very few guidelines for ethical codes of conduct regarding web-based social research. Boehlefeld (1996) suggests referring to the recommendations provided by computer professionals (e.g. Association of Computing Machinery, see below).
The following suggestions attempt to provide guidance in regard to privacy, informed consent and anonymity:
As stated above, the existence of public and private domains in cyberspace do not provide a basis on which to make responsible ethical decisions. The use of the terms ‘private’ and ‘public’ refer to the accessibility of information, not the individual’s own perception of the privacy of their actions.
It is important to understand how the participants perceive the levels of privacy on the Web. A good starting point in understanding how site users may perceive privacy levels is to investigate the following:
- What are the technical and administrative rules of the site?
- What are the rights and responsibilities of members/guests and observers?
- What are the access restrictions?
- Are the membership conditions made explicit?
These rules, restrictions and conditions will provide an insight into the extent of ‘privacy’ for a particular web site. They do not, however, represent the perception of privacy held by an individual. The individual’s perception of privacy may well be determined by who they believe to be looking at their work and what they believe is being done with it. As with all social research, it is recommended that the participant supplying the data, whether an individual author or a site owner, is consulted personally.
Getting consent from participants in an online location can be very difficult. This is largely because of the ‘faceless’ nature of Web participants and the possibility that they may also be assuming a pseudo-identity. The main questions regarding obtaining consent in cyberspace are:
- Should you do it?
- Can you do it?
- From whom do you ask consent? Those that are online? Those that own the site? Or both?
The answer depends on:
- The nature of the study; and
- The practical implications of obtaining informed consent.
There is no single answer.
Allen (1996) met face to face with the System Administrator of the chat room site that she wished to collect data from. She then entered the chat room and over a period of time made her intentions clear to the members, then waited for them to engage with her. Throughout the research process she kept in touch with the participants and informed them of her work. They were given opportunities to comment on her interpretations of the data they had provided.
(Allen, C.1996. What’s Wrong with the “Golden Rule”? Conundrums of Conducting Ethical Research in Cyberspace. http://venus.soci.niu.edu/%7Ejthomas/ethics/tis/go.christin )
Being ‘faceless’, participants can be selective in the amount of personal information they report. They can choose the extent to which they remain anonymous by assuming an ‘online identity’ which may be different from their social identity. The problems with this are that unsuitable or vulnerable populations, or individuals, may become a part of the research project without the researcher ever knowing. King (1996) notes that researchers traditionally disregard pseudonyms as real identities and use them in published research reports. This may be problematic when using cyber-space pseudonyms because people have been known to invest in their ‘virtual-identity’ (Frankel & Siang 1999) and can be recognised by it in the cyber community in which they participate. Individuals can, thus, be identified by community participants if their pseudonym is not anonymised.
However, changing a participant’s name or pseudonym is not necessarily a substitute for measures required by the ethical standards of anonymity. The following precautions are still recommended:
Remove/change all identifying elements from:
- The message header;
- The name of the sender of the posting;
- The name of the list;
- Within the text:
a) demographic data;
b) references to places, people and events;
- Use gender-neutral terms of reference;
- Consider the implications of using direct quotations from web postings (see case study below).
In one study (see Finn & Lavitt, 1994), researchers collected and analysed text from a cyberspace support group for sexually-abused survivors. The published report did not disclose the names of the participants in the discussion group, but it quoted directly from the text of the participant’s cyber-postings and they were, therefore, able to identify themselves. A determined reader of the report who knew the name of the studied group would be able to trace the message and find the name of the individual participants. The participants felt violated as a result of this failure to completely anonymise their postings.
(cited in Frankel, M.S and S. Siang. 1999. ‘Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet: A report of a workshop.’
The researcher’s commitment to the privacy requirements of the participants should not be contravened by the dissemination of the research report. The requirements of the funders/sponsors regarding the dissemination of the report should be in line with the commitments to the participants.
If there is a reason for placing the research findings (or storing data) on the Web then it is perhaps advisable to know how to establish private and public areas for data storage/dissemination.
It is worth considering the following questions:
- Who should be able to view the document?
- To what extent are ‘private’ domains actually private?
- Do they meet your requirements and commitments to:
- the participants?
- the funders/sponsors?
- the ethics committee?
Allen, Christina. 1996. What’s Wrong with the “Golden Rule”? Conundrums of Conducting Ethical Research in Cyberspace. http://venus.soci.niu.edu/%7Ejthomas/ethics/tis/go.christin
Association of Computing Machinery ‘ACM Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct’
Boehlefeld, Sharon. 1996. ‘Doing the right thing: Ethical Cyber Research.’
Frankel, Mark.S and Sanyin Siang 1999 ‘Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research on the Internet: A report of a workshop.’
King, Storm A. 1996. ‘Researching Internet Communities: Proposed Ethical Guidelines for the Reporting of Results.’ The Information Society. 12: 119-127.
Thomas, J. 1996. ‘Introduction: A debate about Ethics of Fair Practices for Collecting Data in Cyberspace.’ The Information Society. 12 : 107-117.
Reid, E. 1996. ‘Informed Consent in the study of On-line Communities: A reflection on the effects of computer mediated research.’ The Information Society. 12: 169-174
Waskul, Dennis. 1996. Ethics of Online Research: Considerations for the Study of Computer Mediated Forms of Interaction.
Waskul, D and M. Douglass. 1996. ‘Considering the Electronic Participant: Some Polemical Observations on the Ethics of On-line Research.’ The Information Society 12: 129-139.