Posted by: Mike Plett | April 10, 2014

Navigating an ethical minefield

Researchers must tread cautiously when conducting research on online communities, especially those serving vulnerable populations — such as children — or cover sensitive topics — such as sexual abuse. To help navigate these potential ethical minefields, Eysenbach and Till (2001) suggest that researchers and institutional review boards should consider the following issues before studying an Internet community: intrusiveness, perceived privacy, vulnerability, potential harm, informed consent, confidentiality and intellectual property rights.

Of the preceding issues, I must admit it didn’t really occur to me that some participants in online groups may actually be seeking publicity, thus they may consider their posts to be their own intellectual property. If this is the case, it makes sense to get a participant’s explicit consent before quoting posts verbatim. But I wonder how often this is an issue.

It seems to me more likely that researchers will run into trouble by unintentionally violating people’s privacy. I can easily imagine a researcher, with every intention of protecting someone’s identity, inadvertently quoting enough of a post that the author could be identified via a Google search.

One way researchers can avoid ethical pitfalls is by consulting the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) ethical guidelines, which stress the idea that there is no “one size fits all” approach to the unique ethical challenges presented by internet research. It’s important for us as researchers to realize that — depending on the context — the rights of subjects may outweigh the benefits of research.

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