Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Introduction: Ethical guidelines for online research

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Open/close headingEthical dilemmas in online research

Jones (2004, 179) suggests that: 'At present for most internet researchers it is likely that gaining access is the least difficult aspect of the research process…What has become more difficult is determining how to ensure ethical use is made of texts, sounds and pictures that are accessed for study.' Additionally, as Mann and Stewart (2000, 8) so aptly recognise: 'Because online research practice is still in its infancy, the critical researcher will be confronted by quandaries at almost every point in the research process.' Thus the debate surrounding online research ethics is a 'work in progress' and the ethical challenges are not simple. Indeed, it is clear that many solutions/nuances to this debate will evolve as online research becomes a more mainstream and sophisticated methodology. To date, some guidelines for online research ethics have been produced and there is a growing consensus as to what ethical research practice online might entail (Ess 2004). Equally, however, due to the variety of online research methods available and the great range of research topics and disciplines that might be involved in online research, it is recognized that there is a considerable diversity of views regarding ethical practice and therefore flexibility must be a feature of any guidelines produced.

In the rest of the module some key ethical issues that are commonly raised in the literature with respect to online research are discussed. Some issues closely reflect the basic ethical principals of onsite research which according to Warnock (1971) involves four core values: non-deception, non-discrimination, non-maleficence and beneficence. But in other instances specific issues arise from conducting research via the internet. It must be reiterated that many of the ethical issues discussed below are still under discussion and appropriate procedures for addressing them are still to be compiled: online research practice is above all else a living process so new ethical problems and issues continually arise. As Johns et al. (2004, 109) correctly observe, the lack of commonly agreed guidelines reflects that several key controversial issues are still to be resolved and there are still wide spread difference of opinion as to what constitutes appropriate online ethical conduct.

The discussion below begins with a presumption that researchers do indeed seek to be ethical, honest and inclusive (cf Schrum 1997, 120) and this involves from the outset respect for the interests and values of the research participants: an ethics of care (cf Capurro and Pingel 2002).


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[Open/close heading]Do we need a new set of ethical guidelines for online research?

Is there anything special about the online research environment that necessitates the development of a set of ethical guidelines specifically pertaining to virtual venues? Or can we directly translate ethical principles from onsite research? There is much debate about this issue. For example, there is still no agreement as to whether online messages constitute private correspondence or published public texts or whether lurking is a defensible online research technique or if seeking consent is required in all virtual venues. According to the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) ethics working committee (quoted by Ess 2002a, 180), online research can entail greater risk to individual privacy and confidentiality, greater challenges to a researcher in gaining informed consent and more difficulty in ascertaining participants' identities. This can result in a greater difficulty in determining ethically correct approaches because of the greater diversity of research venues and because of the global research of the media involved. This suggests that at minimum we do indeed require discussion about ethical codes specifically pertaining to the online environment.

This development of guidelines has for some time been considered important for social science researchers and forms the backbone of some ethical endeavours: Ethics involves '…the study of standards of right and wrong, or the part of science involving moral conduct, duty and judgment…a concern about explicitly developing guidelines to aid in determining appropriate conduct in a given research situation' (Mitchell and Draper (1982, 3), quoted by Kearns et al. (1998, 298), emphasis added). According to Frankel (1989), a profession acts as a moral community and a code of ethics can act as an anchor for that community. Indeed, DeLorme et al. (2001, 273) suggest that codes of research ethics have several benefits for research communities and society at large: they can protect research participants from harm, provide a consistent set of expectations regarding the actions of researchers, encourage ethical behaviour, provide guidance in making decisions, protect researchers against legal and moral problems and support the institutions of social science. Hall et al. (2004, 240) concur, proposing that 'trial and error' approaches do not enhance our understanding of online ethics, nor do they eliminate distress as a result of ethical misconduct. As this suggests, some sort of ethical guidelines for online research might be useful to researchers and society alike.


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[Open/close heading]Current guidelines

To date, some guidelines for online research ethics have been produced. Earlier work shows little common agreement on ethical issues (Cavanah 1999; DeLorme et al. 2001; Elgesem 1996; Eysenbach and Till 2001; Szabo and Frenkl 1996; Schrum 1997; Sharf 1999). Indeed the forum on ethics of fair practice for the collection of social science data in cyberspace (Thomas 1996) illustrates the variety of positions on ethical issues for online social science research (see Allen 1996; Boehlefeld 1996; King 1996; Reid 1996). However, more recently there has been a growing consensus as to what ethical research practice online might entail (Ess 2004; Mann and Stewart 2000) and greater recognition of the similarities between online and offline research ethics (Ess 2002a; Thomas 2004). This has culminated in the Association of Internet Researchers (Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee 2002) making recommendations to inform and support researchers, organizations and academic societies responsible for making decisions about the ethics of internet research. Their document stresses ethical pluralism, cross-cultural awareness and guidelines not recipes.

This flexibility in ethical recommendations is essential because of the variety of online research methods available and the great range of research topics and disciplines that can be involved in online research. Moreover, the variety of venues in which internet-mediated research can occur and the expectation of the research subjects in those venues will further influence any ethical research practice. As Bailey (2001) correctly observes, research ethics are relational and contextual, suggesting that different online methods will produce different research relationships and so research ethics will vary with methodology as well as research context. It is recognized therefore that ethical guidelines are goals on which the research should focus rather than a prescriptive set of rules (cf Johns et al. 2004, 108). Moreover, it is clear that there are different ethical philosophical frameworks (deontological, utilitarian, virtue).

Thus, as Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002, 4) so correctly observe, there is more than one ethically defensible response to an ethical dilemma: ambiguity, uncertainty and disagreement are inevitable. Thus Ess (2002a, 181-184) argues that while we are witnessing a convergence in general approaches to online research ethics, this is simultaneously augmented by an 'ethical pluralism' in which there is a continuum of legitimate ethical choices available to the online researcher. So while shared agreements on the basic norms and values of ethical guidelines are emerging, the actual practice or application of these will depend on precedents of previous researchers, personal choice, disciplinary background, institutional context, ideological position and specific cultural interpretations and laws.

In particular, different countries and different disciplines will have different formal regulation and research governance over the management, monitoring and sanctioning of research ethics. Researchers conducing internet-mediated research therefore need to make themselves aware of current processes of ethical clearing in their country and discipline.


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Open/close headingSome ethical questions: a checklist

According to Eysenbach and Till (2001), the following issues should be discussed before studying an internet community:

  1. Intrusiveness. Discuss the extent to which the research is intrusive (will it involve passive analysis of internet postings or more active involvement in the community by participating?);
  2. Perceived privacy. Discuss (preferably in consultation with members of the community) the level of perceived privacy of the community (Is it a closed group requiring registration? What is its membership size? What are the group norms?);
  3. Vulnerability. Discuss how vulnerable the community is (for example, a mailing list for victims of sexual abuse or HIV/AIDS may be a vulnerable community);
  4. Potential harm. As a result of the above, discuss whether the intrusion of the researcher or publication of the results has potential to harm individuals or the community as a whole;
  5. Informed consent. Discuss whether informed consent is required and how it will be obtained;
  6. Confidentiality. How can the anonymity of participants be protected?;
  7. Intellectual property rights. In some cases participants may not seek anonymity, but publicity, so the use of postings without attribution may not be appropriate.

Clearly, there are many other issues, dependent on the particular research project but this list is a good starting point.


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[Open/close heading]Learning activity: Background reading

[?] Carry out the following reading activity to explore different models of ethical enquiry.


Most discussions of online ethics usually start with the presumption of the human subject ethical model, rooted in medical and social science approaches. Recent work by Bruckman (2002b) suggests that this is not the only model from which to consider online ethics. Other models, such as the humanities approach, might radically alter the analysis of ethical enquiry (see Bassett and O'Riordan 2002 and White 2002, for example). As Ess (2002a, 179) explains, the human subjects model makes the analogy of persons (=human subjects) in space. This leads to very different ethical enquiries than a humanitarian model in which analogies of textuality and persons as authors emerge. Indeed, Bassett and O'Riordan (2002) argue we need to move towards a 'hybrid' model of relational ethics that incorporates text, space and bodies. To explore the nuances of the debate, read the papers below and decide what is the most appropriate ethical model for you to use in your research.

Ethics and Information Technology (2002), 4, 3, 177-188. Special Issue on Internet Research Ethics. See articles by Bruckman, Bassett and O'Riordan, Ess and White.


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