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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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)?
Over the past 12 months or so I have been keeping an eye on online surveys, questionnaire styles and data collection methods in more general. I found requests to complete online surveys in social networking sites such as Xing and Facebook as well as on daily lists issued by associations I am a member of and followed all of them, curious to learn and gain a sense of what constitutes good practice from the participant’s perspective.
80% of the surveys I attempted to fill in I abonded within a few minutes – more often than not I found the questions asked were designed to an annoying degree to provide the researching individual with neatly packaged data rather than aiming at an understanding of my meaning-making processes and practices or patterns of consumption. A number of online surveys were so heavily shaped by cultural centrism (the US-centric, the German-centric view etc) that I wondered why these researchers even bothered posting on sites where audiences/potential participants were obviously drawn from a wider cross-cultural background.
I found it amazing how restrictively surveys can be structured and how little information in some cases is provided as to the wider picture, the distribution, the funding (and implied interest parties) and the aims and objective of the project.
- Where is the data I provide going to end up?
- Where and when will I be able to obtain a copy of the results?
- What happens with the data once I decide to drop out in the midst of the session?
Some researchers did not seem to have ever heard of the use of vignettes (i.e. a brief illustrating description or a mini-narrative) nor did they convey a sense of understanding the power/inequality issues involved in research.
Those surveys developed with the particpant’s well-being in mind – ethical issues should constitute a considerable part of postgraduate studies but don’t seem to inform survey designs as much as one might anticipate – manage to convey a sense of trust and respect that is vital, I think. In this regard, I found Jordan McCarthy’s survey a pleasant surprise and rather exceptional. The questionnaire is well-crafted, the style of asking helps to develop a sense of trust, mainly because Jordan has chosen a very thoughtful way and a fair amount of open-ended questions that gave me a sense of being listened to.
Many researchers use such comments provided in textfields as quotable material, which means they actually give a voice to the participants if they use such quotes in a responsible and meaningfull manner (a few years ago a German researcher ripped many of my quotes out of context and imposed her -wrong- interpretations on them – the experience left me with a strong sense of powerlessness – and what damage poorly conducted research can do to participants/interlocutors). Jordan McCarthy is a student at Standford University who is doing
“a bit of research on how our conceptions and practices of trust may be changing as we adapt to various online environments”
The full announcement with contact details is available on the AoIR server
And on a final, more practical note, I can confirm that the announced 10-20 minutes duration of participation were perfectly sufficient. The self-completion online survey can be found here: on Surveymonkey
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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.