VKS: Ethics of (e)research Workshop in Amsterdam, Part 1

The Virtual Knowledge Studio in Amsterdam offered an Ethics of (e)research Workshop on
Monday 15 June, which brought together post-graduate/doctoral students and researchers from various fields and a range of cultural backgrounds.

Below are the ethical dilemmas I anticipate to encounter in due course of my future research project which will investigate Digital Technologies [as research tool and objects] in the context of informal cognitive processes embedded in online social interaction which have repercussions on real world settings and experiences.

Methodology: based on a triangulatory approach, it will include a self-completed online survey, auto-ethnographic work as well as semi-structured focus-group interviews and content analysis. Inevitably, in particular the auto-ethnographic work conducted in the blogosphere and online social networks entails a range of possible ethical conflicts which I fear an Ethics Committee may subject to a one-size-fits-all policy that won’t take into account the following particularities:

  1. Participant Consent –fully informed and voluntary (FIV) – in retrospective?
    Conversations and comments on blogs, tweets and retweets on Twitter and comments on Facebook status updates or semi-public debates via Facebook’s wall-to-wall feature: they cut across the public/private boundaries. Given that participants provide FIV consent, Ethics Committees should accept this as ethical research. However, danah boyd et al. have experienced considerable difficulties with retrospective consent in recent projects. Hence, a more ‘dynamic’ and contextualised/non-static model of ethical guidelines is still something we cannot take for granted when submitting our forms to the Ethics Committees.
  2. Public versus private, blurred boundaries and imagined risky/secure spaces
    Are Facebook status updates private, semi-public or public? If forwarded by applications that support Twitter boundaries become blurred and even participants may differ in their perceptions, resulting in different participants demanding different levels of privacy (at different stages in the research) – or, maybe also requesting to categorise rather private messages as public for they may want to be heard and gain higher ‘online status’ (for instance on QDOS which calculate your virtual footprint). Imposing privacy might indeed cause harm when participants do rather desire publicity.
  3. Confidentiality and Anonymity
    Are aspects closely related to point 2 above. Can we safely assume all participants desire anonymisation of their real name or pseudonym? How can I deal with texts/images and other media that evolve over time and contain various levels of confidentiality, for instance participant comments in 1:1 conversation (think Twitter DM [direct messaging], forwarded automatically to email, responded to by public tweet) and also in focus group follow-up interviews. I.e. naturalistic research in the first case vs. participatory research in the latter.
    Moreover: cultural differences, expectations and needs may vary across age groups, perhaps even gender, and depend on social class background/educational level. Ideally, we are giving a voice to the interviewee/participant and promoting a level of equality, i.e. avoiding misrepresentation, paternalistic attitude and harm by all means – yet, we need to understand that positions are highly contextual and depend on subjective needs of participants rather than universal model of research ethics. Have ethics committes already arrived at that point?
  4. Power and Equality
    Conducting research, collecting data and distributing findings may be greatly facilitated by online channels. The level of transparency can be high, and research participants may want to claim part-authorship for instance by using excerpts of the research report to be posted on their blog or website (or used in other media). A continued dialogue with participants, post-debriefing, may require further ethical decision-making beyond the levels common in other contexts. Again, not a one-size-fits-all ethical guideline but rather a case-by-case-based ethical decision making might be required. Will participants become involved in future amendments of ethical guidelines?

Finally, the participants’ levels of reflexivity and general awareness of research processes do seem to increase continuously while access to paths of personal and professional development of the researchers become ever more transparent and accessible. Will we need to learn to remind participants that they also need to behave ethically towards researchers? Are we progressing towards a more equal research-driven community and wider – globalised – society? Moreover, the researcher as the researched: my blog, my SNSs, my microblog, all the many profiles, traces left – can I expect research participants to act in an ethical manner in case they won’t agree with my findings (interpretations of findings, to be precise)?

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About Britta Bohlinger, CFE

Founder and Director of RisikoKlár in Iceland. Native German, global perspective - previously in London and Berlin.
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