Ethical considerations in online research for the social sciences
Ethical considerations in online research for the social sciences With special consideration given to the 2nd edition of Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans (TCPS2) By Cody Skinner University of Guelph March 15, 2013
Using the internet for researchThere are many different contexts for online research: - in the form of the interaction (text, audio or video) - the environment under scrutiny (online community, e-commerce site)In addition to different epistemological and logistical approaches, each requirenuanced ethical considerations (AoIR, 2012; Krotoski, 2010).“Although the medium presents challenges to existing ethical approaches, theInternet does not inherently transform the accepted protocols. Technologyconnects people to people via a network, and therefore we must be sensitive to therights of the human subjects behind the connections” (Krotoski, 2010, p. 4).
Three categories of online researchKitchin (2003) suggests there are three general types of research methods availablethrough the Internet:(1) Passive analysis: Studies of online information patterns or discussions without the researchers involving themselves;(2) Active analysis: Researchers participate in online communications;(3) Online semi-structured interviews, online focus groups, or Internet based surveys, or use the Internet to recruit subjects for traditional research.Research that falls under numbers 2 and 3 will always require REB approval. Withinthe research ethics guidelines of the Tri-Council Policy Statement, passive analysis mayneed REB approval if it is judged to make use of private information (TCPS2, 2010).The distinction between public and private on the internet, however, can be unclear.
Public vs private on the InternetSome researchers contend that much of the data found online is situated in thepublic domain and, as such, is comparable to a television or newspaper article(Kitchin, 2003).Drawing on previously created and archived narratives/texts falls underpublicly available information, especially in cases where the use of whichwould pose no harm beyond that already assumed by speakers-as-writers(Kitchin, 2003).However, according to TCPS2 “a matter that is publicly accessible may,nevertheless, be considered private in a prospective participant’s culture. There maybe a reasonable expectation of privacy by some groups, or for some activities”(TCPS2, 2010, p 147).
Public vs private on the InternetCovert observation (lurking) avoids many of the barriers associated with age,gender and race in relationships between the researcher and participants. However,‘lurking’ may have serious ethical considerations regarding invasion of privacy(Brownlow and O’Dell, 2002).While people online operate in a public space, they may have perceptions orexpectations of privacy.Users may know their communication online is publicly visible, but the specificcontext in which it appears may imply restrictions on how that information can beused by other parties (AoIR, 2012).
Indicators for perceptions of privacyEysenbach and Till (2001) suggest researchers consider the following whendeciding whether online sources of data are private or public:• Sites requiring registration or a user’s permission to gain access to a discussiongroup or social media posts are most likely regarded as private places.• The number of (real or assumed) users of a community may indicate how publicthe space is perceived to be.• The perception of privacy depends on an individual groups norms and codes,target audience, and aim, often laid down in the frequently asked questions orinformation files of an internet community.
Relevant passages in TCPS2“Exemption from REB review is based on the information being accessible in thepublic domain, and that the individuals to whom the information refers have noreasonable expectation of privacy” (TCPS2, 2010, p 24).“Cyber-material … to which the public is given uncontrolled access on theInternet for which there is no expectation of privacy is considered to be publiclyavailable information” (TCPS2, 2010, p 24).“When accessing identifiable information in publicly accessible digital sites …with restricted membership, the privacy expectation of contributors of these sites ismuch higher. Researchers shall submit their proposal for REB review”(TCPS2, 2010, p 24).“When in doubt … researchers should consult their REBs” (TCPS2, 2010, p 24).
‘Active analysis’ and other onlineengagement for researchAccording to a report by Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics SpecialWorking Committee (SSHWC, 2008), in cases where a researcher participates inan online community, or in cases where the researcher uses the Internet to solicit‘subjects,’ ethics review should be sought.This includes:1. engaged web-based research, even with minimal involvement where theresearchers participate in communications, and2. online research (collecting information through interviews, discussion groups,surveys or questionnaires)Ethical assessment would be necessary as these situations raise problems involvingconsent, anonymity, confidentiality and risk.
Challenges in obtaining consent onlineThe process of requesting consent can disrupt normal group activity(Bruckman, 2002).The speed of discussions and change in participants typical in online environmentsmake it difficult to obtain consent online from all participants (SSHWC, 2008).It is difficult to ensure that subjects thoroughly read the consent form, understandinstructions and give information voluntarily (SSHWC, 2008).While they may provide a useful starting point, obtaining permission from anadministrator is inadequate to obtain the consent of the community (Eysenbachand Till, 2001).
Tips for obtaining consent onlineSSHWC (2008) recommends the following when seeking consent online:• Ask participants to indicate their agreement and understanding at each major point in the consent form by using check boxes.• Provide a hyperlink to frequently asked questions.• Provide clear instructions for revoking consent, ensuring that data are removed from the database.• Test participants on the consent-related material with correct responses to access the study.
Research with minorsAs with most social science research, SSHWC (2008) suggests researchers are oftwo positions when it comes to consent involving research with minors:• For some, contact with and access to minors in the context of Internet research should take place only through an intermediary, such as parents or the school.• Others favour direct access to minors, with no parental consent, so that young people can respond freely to research questions and not be prevented from participating in the researchIn either case, it is difficult to verify the age and identity of an online participant.One might verify the participant’s information with a telephone call and cross-checking information from the participant with information from other sources(Kitchin, 2003).According to TCPS2, “those who lack the capacity to consent on their own behalfmust neither be unfairly excluded from the potential benefits of researchparticipation, nor may their lack of capacity to consent be used to inappropriatelyinclude them in research” (TCPS2, 2010, p 41).
AnonymityOnline pseudonyms should be treated in the same way one treats real names (Hillet al, 2004). The reputation of a virtual identity needs to be valued as the mostimportant social currency in online environments (Krotoski, 2010).Even ‘anonymised’ datasets can contain enough personal information forindividuals to be identifiable (AoIR, 2012).Use of explicit quotes may make it possible to locate the original author of the textthrough search engines (Kitchin, 2003).Authors of online content may actually want to be credited. Failure to do so maybe considered a misuse of another persons intellectual property(Eysenbach and Till, 2001).“Where the researcher seeks data linkage of two or more anonymous sets ofinformation … and there is a reasonable prospect that this could generateidentifiable information, then REB review is required” (TCPS, 2010, pp 25).
ConfidentialityIdentifying information, demographic or other sensitive information should becollected, transmitted, and stored separately from experimental data(Hill et al, 2004).The confidentiality and privacy of data gathered through online surveys mayconstitute another problem due to transmission of data (Hill et al, 2004).Researchers should alert participants to potential privacy confidentiality breaches,even though this may effect participation levels (Brownlow and O’Dell, 2002).“Research data sent over the Internet may require encryption or use of specialdenominalization software to prevent interception by unauthorized individuals, orother risks to data security. In general, identifiable data obtained through researchthat is kept on a computer and connected to the Internet should be encrypted”(TCPS2, 2010, pp 61).
RiskIt is difficult to monitor for or help subjects deal with any distress raised by anonline interview or study (SSHWC, 2008). Debriefing and feedback are also morecomplicated, as participants may exit the exercise before these happen. Hill et al(2004) suggest the following steps be taken:• Solicit personal, secure email at the beginning of the experiment whereby feedback material can be sent if study participation is terminated prematurely.• Opt-out buttons within surveys should be linked to a debriefing page.• As debriefing cannot be guaranteed, deception should be used sparingly.Information should also be provided on the identity, affiliation, and role of theresearch team. Research design should include procedures for soliciting feedbackand handing complaints from participants, while summaries of study results shouldbe posted or sent via email to interested individuals (Hill et al, 2004).
A case for considerationHenderson, Hutton and McNeilly (2002) examined two studies conducted usingpassive observation of social networks. Simulating the two studies in terms of thetype of information collected, the researchers presented participants with socialnetwork data from their own profiles (eg. status updates, photographs, friends,locations). Participants were then asked if they would have consented to sharingthose pieces of data with researchers in a study.Preliminary results indicated that passive crawling of social network sites might notbe acceptable to social network users, and therefore that mechanisms for obtainingconsent should be investigated for such studies.For more information on this study and and the two cases examined, visit:http://torrii.responsible-innovation.org.uk/case-studies/ethics-online-social-network-research-0#benabdesslem:esmIn your opinion, should the use of social network profile information alwaysrequire consent? Should content from Twitter be considered public? Shouldcomments on a bulletin board styled site like Reddit?
ReferencesAssociation of Internet Researchers (AoIR). (2012). Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Recommendations from theAoIR Ethics Working Committee (Version 2.0). Chicago, IL: Markham, A., and Buchanan, E.Brownlow, C., and O’Dell, L. (2002). Ethical Issues for Qualitative Research in Online Communities. Disability and Society,17(6), pp. 685–694.Bruckman, A. (2002). "Ethical Guidelines for Research Online." Georgia Institute of Technology. Retrieved March 14, 2013,from http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/ethics/Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and Social Sciences andHumanities Research Council of Canada. (2010). Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans(TCPS2).Eysenbach, G., and Till, J.E. (2001). Ethical issues in qualitative research on Internet communities. British Medical Journal, vol.323: 1103-1105Henderson, T., Hutton, L., and McNeilly, S. (2012). FRRIICT case study report: Ethics in online social network research.Retrieved March 14, 2013, from http://torrii.responsible-innovation.org.uk/case-studies/ethics-online-social-network-research-0#benabdesslem:esmHill, M.L. King, C.B. Ecker-Denver, C. Gibson, E., Pankoff, B. and Rice, T. (2004). "The Ethics of Online Research: Issues,Guidelines and Practical Solutions." Society for Prevention Research – Conference 2004, Poster #196.http://home.oise.utoronto.ca/~scottlab/colin.pdfKitchin, H.A. (2003). The Tri-council Policy Statement and research in cyberspace: Research ethics, the Internet, and revising a livingdocument. Journal of Academic Ethics, vol. 1(4): 397-418.Krotoski, A. (2010). Introduction to the Special Issue: Research ethics in online communities. International Journal of InternetResearch Ethics, vol. 3(1): 1-5.Interagency Advisory Panel and Secretariat on Research Ethics. (2008). Extending the Spectrum: The TCPS and Ethical Issues inInternet-based Research. Ottawa, ON: Social Sciences and Humanities Research Ethics Special Working Committee (SSHWC).Background image source: http://pixabay.com/en/ball-http-www-crash-administrator-63527/