ethics and research in the virtual world
In July I attended the Internet Studies Festival at John Moores University in Liverpool which was a rather small but very valuable event. One issue though seemed to remain in the dark and it is still not as widely debated as it should be: ethics.
A post-grad social researcher argued that ‘one would need to find a way to work around’ – she left us in the dark about the details of her own research, i.e. how exactly she had ensured privacy and data protection in her fieldwork centred around ‘understanding student’s use of Facebook’ were secured at all times. Rather she had perceived the semi-public sphere of facebook with her friends’ contact details a rich source of data – and subsequently presented poorly disguised images and personal details of her participants as part of her findings to the delegates – assuming this would be another semi-private/exclusive space. Hence, a safe arena.
This may come across as a specifically sad case but looking at the currently available formal framework of guidelines as provided by the AoiR [Association of Internet Researchers] AoIR Research Ethics and the BSA Research Ethics the guidelines are perhaps not explicit enough and might remain vague to those students who learned to expect a larger extent or more explicit guidance. Also, the applications online available, the range of settings and practices within and around the online social networks, the micro-/blogosphere etc may change faster than academic institutions/committees are usually able to respond and amend their guidelines. Dynamic and flexibility would need to increase – or students might need to get equipped with the skills and attitude to adopt/develop guidelines themselves according to the demands of the specific environment under investigation.
Another issue in this context might be the persistence of a rather unhelpful debate: the public/private dichotomy. Certainly, the online sphere deserves just as much careful consideration of ethical issues as the offline spheres – otherwise we, i.e. the community of researchers [at all stages], may risk to loose reputation, credibility – and most importantly: the degree of influence we actually seek when we embark upon the research journey.