Online research and ethical principles of online communication


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My presentation at Ecrea 2012 on research ethics and online research as a specific form of computer-mediated communication (please comment :)

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Online research and ethical principles of online communication

  1. 1. Online-Based Research asComputer-Mediated Communication Insights from Online Communication Ethics Nele Heise, M. A. ECREA 2012, 4th European Communication Conference October 26, 2012, Istanbul
  2. 2. :: Background ::Master thesis on internet research ethics (2010-2011) • qualitative interviews with 17 German internet researchers • application of ethical standards not problematic with conventional methods • problems and insecurities occur with genuine online methods (e.g. avatar-based research), new research objects (e.g. social networks) and/or due to new practices (e.g. publication vs. conversation) Arising conflicts due to breaches of norms or standards of online communication? Heise | Online Research Ethics 2
  3. 3. Online research as [Computer-mediated] Communication Ziegaus (2009): “dependence of social sciences of their media” • Social science research relies on communication, social scientists establish communicative relations • these relations depend on mutual role expectations and (technical, social and physical) media Preconditions of online based research • (spatial and temporal) de-contextualization • Disembodiment, virtualization (textuality) • informational constraints: degree of social presence, anonymity Heise | Online Research Ethics 3
  4. 4. “Hybridity” of online research contexts • ethical standards of research • technical / methodological requirements of research Researcher role • research experience / practices • technical & social frames of media practices • characteristics of online communication hybrid role • terms of use, rights of the providers • individual ethical argumentation • fidelity & responsibility User role • principles of communication ethics • rules of media use (e.g. netiquettes) • individual media literacy/competence Heise | Online Research Ethics 4
  5. 5. Ethical principles of online communication Wolff (2007) Beck (2010) “Personalität” Comprehensibility Reciprocity Rightness Authenticity Thruth Truthfulness Truthfulness Heise | Online Research Ethics 5
  6. 6. Ethical Principles & Research PracticeComprehensibility• mutual understanding (language & culture) as a basic prerequiste of communication  online based research with kids & teens or the understanding of specific user cultures (e.g. online gamers), net competence“Personalität”• recognition of the personhood of others, prohibition of objectification, respecting the communication partner as “an end in itself” (human dignity)  perception of research participants as „incoming datasets“; texts vs. actors Heise | Online Research Ethics 6
  7. 7. Ethical Principles & Research PracticeTruth & Truthfulness• congruency of saying and reality & obligation to speak the truth; complete and true information about identity and communication aims/goals, otherwise: failure of communication  informational constraints for verification (data, user accounts etc.) and identification/authentication; “visibility" of researchers and disclosure of research (e.g. “fake profiles”)Reciprocity• mutuality of communication Heise | Online Research Ethics 7
  8. 8. Ethical Principles & Research Practice“As a participant I have greater autonomy (…) so I can leave situationseasier that are unpleasant for me. On the other hand, I am cut off ofinformation. (…) as a participant I have to trust a bit more, because thesetting might be harder to grasp. If I go to an experiment at a university andthe door sign of the person that invited me says ‘Mr./Ms. X’, also I can see inwhich department this takes place (…) so, there I have more hints pointingto the seriousness of the research. On the internet, this is harder tounderstand. Also, it is easier to pretend things or to give false facts. (…).There is a bigger informational insecurity for participants. At the sametime, they have a greater scope for actions and can drop off more easilythan in a f2f-situation.” [media psychologist, online games research] Heise | Online Research Ethics 8
  9. 9. Ethical Principles & Research PracticeAuthenticity• to act as you yourself, undisguised and be open-minded, but: selective authenticity to safeguard privacy  shifting boundaries of privacy & publicity (data, practices) as well as private and professional life, and equivalency of contextRightness or “Richtigkeit”• Access to online “spaces”• Recruitment of participants• Ambivalence of methods (data mining, log file analysis, profiling) Heise | Online Research Ethics 9
  10. 10. Ethical Principles & Research Practice“it is not just (…) a technology, an infrastructure, which is simply there.Instead, we are appropriating it and it has a specific meaning for us. If youare going to MySpace you do different things than on Facebook (…) theseare very different spaces or Lebenswelten, with different functions andmeanings. Once you acknowledge that (…) we as researchers have to take acertain position: not to sniff around and observe everything because it iseasily accessible, but instead to be aware of the fact that these spaces aremade by people for themselves. (…) Although it is easily technicallyaccessible in principle.” [doctoral student, visual analysis of self-representation in SNS] Heise | Online Research Ethics 10
  11. 11. Ethical Principles & Research Practice“At the very moment at which Im registered, I accept the rules of thecommunity, and agree that I will follow them. (…) Not I as a researcherdefine: what I am doing, what Im citing or publishing is unproblematic, noproblem. The complete opposite is true: the group sets the boundaries. (…)I as a researcher have a kind of ‘Holschuld’, a duty to obtain their consent.” [research assistant, online observational analysis]“as social scientists, working with media users, we all know that mediausage is not always rational. I cannot assume that (…) it is a consciousdecision if someone is not using his/her privacy settings. (…) You must givethe users some credit, because you cannot take for granted that you canuse it, only because it is not secured.“ [research assistant, online games research] Heise | Online Research Ethics 11
  12. 12. Some final remarks• Online communication ethics as a chance to carry out ethical research in a very dynamic field• Relevance of online communication ethics due to the ‘hybrid role’ as researcher/user, e.g. selective authenticity to avoid privacy conflicts• Implications: prospective approach to ethical consideration, reflection of communicative settings and strategies, integration in teaching and methodological discourse Heise | Online Research Ethics 12
  13. 13. Thanks* for your attention! Nele Heise, M. A. Hans Bredow Institute, Hamburg @neleheise * My ECREA 2012 participation is kindly funded by the DAAD
  14. 14. ReferencesAoIR (ethics working committee) (2002). Ethical decision-making and Internet research: recommendations from the AoIR ethics working committee. Retrieved from: (April 30, 2012).Beck, K. (2010). Ethik der Online-Kommunikation. In W. Schweiger & K. Beck (Eds.), Handbuch Online-Kommunikation (pp. 130-155). Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag.Donk, A. (2010). The sciences they are a-changing: Wie das Internet das Sozialsystem Wissenschaft verändert. Retrieved from: http://www.lisa.gerda-henkel- (July 14, 2011).Döring, N.(1999). Sozialpsychologie des Internet: die Bedeutung des Internet für Kommunikationsprozesse, Identitäten, soziale Beziehungen und Gruppen. Göttingen (u.a.): Hogrefe.Dzeyk, W. (2001). Ethische Dimensionen der Online-Forschung. Kölner Psychologische Studien 6(1), 1-30. Retrieved from: http://kups.ub.uni- (January 21, 2011).Eynon, R., Schroeder, R. & Fry, J. (2009). New Techniques in Online Research. Challenges for Research Ethics. 21st Century Society 4(2), 187-199.Fenner, D. (2010). Einführung in die Angewandte Ethik. Tübingen: Francke.Fraas, C., Meier, S. & Pentzold, C. (2012). Online-Kommunikation. Grundlagen, Praxisfelder und Methoden. Wien: Oldenbourg Verl.Hamilton, R. J. & Bowers, B. J. (2006). Internet Recruitment and E-Mail Interviews in Qualitative Studies. Qualitative Health Research 16(6), 821-835.McKee, H. & Porter, J. E. (2009). The Ethics of Internet Research. A Rhetorical, Case-Based Process. New York u.a.: Peter Lang.Nissenbaum, H. (2004). Privacy as contextual integrity. Washington Law Review, 79(1), 119-157.Sandbothe, M. (1996). Medienethik im Zeitalter des Internet. Telepolis. Die Zeitschrift der Netzkultur 0, 35-48. Retrieved from: (June 23, 2012).Schmidt, J. (2009). Braucht das Web 2.0 eine eigene Forschungsethik? Zeitschrift für Kommunikationsökologie und Medienethik 11(2), 38-42.Taddicken, M. (2009). Die Bedeutung von Methodeneffekten der Online-Befragung: Zusammenhänge zwischen computervermittelter Kommunikation und Datengüte. In N. Jackob, H. Schoen & T. Zerback (Eds.), Sozialforschung im Internet: Methodologie und Praxis der Online-Befragung (pp. 91-107). Wiesbaden: VS-Verlag.Vanacker, B. & Heider, D. (2012). Ethical Harms in Virtual Communities. Convergence. The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies 18(1), 71-84.Volst, A. (2003). The Focus Is on Me? – Fokus-Gruppe: Von Face to Face zu Online. Österreichische Zeitschrift für Soziologie 28(4), 93-118.Wolff, O. J. (2007). Kommunikationsethik des Internets: eine anthropologisch-theologische Grundlegung. Hamburg: Verlag Dr. Kovač.Ziegaus, S. (2009): Die Abhängigkeit der Sozialwissenschaften von ihren Medien. Grundlagen einer kommunikativen Sozialforschung. Bielefeld: transcript.
  15. 15. What‘s the fuss about?Dilemmas of Internet Research• technical feasibility vs. ethical acceptability of research (practices)• The web as „science laboratory“: Comprehensive logging and storage, easily accessible archive of communication and interaction processes• Richness of data (“big data”), ease of field access, better conditions for specific methods e.g. observational analysis• Blurring boundaries of publicity and privacy (data, “spaces”)• De-Contextualization and global reach of Research• Data (Re-)Combination and anonymization, „Googlization of data“
  16. 16. A reminder for Internet Researchers“There cannot be a blanket, whole cloth approach to Internet Research ethics.Contextual details matter, including: What, exactly, is the object of analysis of thestudy – texts, aggregated bits of information, or the persons themselves? What arethe use expectations of the online site and of the online participants? What is thesensitivity of the information collected? What are the ages, geo-cultural-politicalaffiliations, and/or technological expertise of the online participants? In what formare the researchers collecting data, and in what forms are they re-distributing it? Isthe researcher using real names or real user/avatar names, quoting passages,taking screenshots, etc.? And where will this material appear and to whom will itbe accessible?” (McKee & Porter, 2009. pp. 7f.)