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Informed consent with conventional onsite research methods involves treating the participants of social research with respect, using clearly easily understood language to inform them of the nature of the research, the time needed to be involved, the methods to be used and the use to be made of any findings, before gaining their consent to take part (cf Mann and Stewart 2000; Vujakovic and Bullard 2001). Any potential physical, economic or psychological risks (for example, distress, embarrassment, loss of esteem) must be explained and attempts made to mitigate against these. If this is not possible, the research should be abandoned for these risks should be no greater than those encountered in normal daily activity for the research participants. According to Matthews et al. (1988, 316) this should also involve 'cultural safety' (cf Dyck and Kearns 1995) '…whereby those taking part in a project should not feel threatened or challenged by the researcher who, through inadequate preparation, insensitivity or simple ignorance, may comment unwisely on implicit cultural, ethnic or religious beliefs.' Similarly, any benefits or compensation should be clearly explained, both to the individual and also in terms of a 'greater social good'. Particular care must be taken with informed consent if the research includes potential vulnerable individuals such as children. Permission must be obtained from parents or guardians for individuals under 18 years old. Gaining consent should never involve coercion. All participants should be made aware of the complaints procedure and be able to withdraw from the research at any point.
Clearly these principles should also apply in the online environment. Participants must be made fully aware of the purpose of the research project. Generally written information about the aims of the project, the roles of the participants and any potential risks should be provided, either as an email, on a dedicated website or bulletin board, or by conventional mail. If gaining consent virtually a consent form can be provided as an email attachment or on the website but getting the participants to sign it may not be straightforward. Ideally the consent form would be downloaded electronically and the signed form returned via surface mail or fax to the researcher. In practice this may discourage respondents so an alternative consists of including a tick box ('I accept') in an email that the respondent can return online to the researcher or on a web page that introduces the questionnaire or interview. Alternatively, participants could be emailed with a password which is then required in order to take part in the research. This strategy can also ameliorate problems with potential hackers. However, without written signed consent any project formally contravenes European data protection legislation (Mann and Stewart 2000, 49). Moreover, some concerns have been raised about verifying the identity of consenting participants in cyberspace. For example, it has been suggested that gaining informed consent online can be more problematic than for onsite research because it is potentially easier for participant to deceive the researcher, particularly regarding their age. In the virtual anonymous realm, how can the researcher verify the participants' identity? In practice, however, according Hewson et al. (2003, 52), this type of fraudulence is both rare and easily detected. Moreover, these issues are also present in onsite research (Johns et al. 2004, 117). Particular care must be taken in gaining informed consent with minors and here there are several useful case studies to draw on (Bober 2004; Stern 2004). Overall, Bruckman (2002a) concludes that the manner in which consent is gained varies with the nature of the research project. She suggests that consent may be obtained electronically if the risks to subjects are low but otherwise consent must be obtained by a signature on paper returned by surface mail or fax.
The above points relate largely to gaining consent for online questionnaires. The situation with respect to online interviewing is more straightforward. When using chat facilities or conferencing facilities for virtual interviews, it is likely that the interviewees have been through some sort of process of self-selection and so informed consent can be gained during this process (as detailed above). Indeed, consent should not be left until the actual interview is going to occur as it requires some prior thought from the participants, the form may take some time to download and time is required for the researcher to receive the written signed form (if considered necessary).
Withdrawal from the research
The ability to withdraw from the research at any time is a central tenet of informed consent. Withdrawal from an online questionnaire can be made available by locating an exit button next to the submit button. Withdrawal from a virtual interview can be achieved by locating a withdraw button available at all times in the chat window. But during virtual interviews sudden withdrawal of a participant can be met with confusion: does the interviewee no longer wish to participate? Is there a technical problem with internet connection? How should the interviewer follow this withdrawal up to find out? How many follow up emails to find out where the participant has gone would be considered spamming and intrusive? These are issues still to be decided upon. However, as Johns et al. (2004, 116) suggest, withdrawal is also significant in onsite research and in fact, a participant may feel freer to withdraw from an online project as there are fewer face-to-face social pressures.
So while the issue of informed consent shows many similarities to onsite research, there also some differences in the virtual realm. This is a particularly thorny issue regarding not gaining informed consent for participant observation in the online environment. Deception involves researchers deliberately concealing the purpose of their study. In theory any research should not involve deception but in practice there is a contested debate over the issue. Some researchers, for example Denzin (1999), argue that postings on bulletin boards are public so there is no need to proceed without disclosing research activity while Glaser et al. (2002) contend that there are occasions when disclosing research activity would jeopardise the research aims. Similarly, Langer and Beckman (2005) argue for the legitimacy of covert internet research on sensitive topics, suggesting that existing ethical guidelines with regard to informed consent may need to be revised. Chen et al. (2004, 164) further argue for the importance of 'lurking' as a research act prior to gaining informed consent, in order to understand the topics and tone of exchanges in a mailing list or newsgroup before becoming involved. But although 'lurking' as socialisation into the online culture of a group was considered an important prerequisite for research, Chen et al. (2004, 164) also found that moderators and group leaders generally disapproved of lurking as a data collection method, so that observation without participation was generally considered unethical research practice. Eysenbach and Till (2001) support this view, contending that researchers 'lurking' in online communities might be perceived as intruders and may in fact damage some communities. They therefore suggest that the online research must tread very carefully here in order to respect their participants' lives. As Hine (personal communication, 2005) points out, the issue of deception is often not clear-cut. 'A researcher may set out to tell everyone concerned about their research, but as new participants join a forum and as existing participants forget, the research can effectively become more covert as time goes on. The issue can be particularly troubling in online forums with high turnover, like chat rooms.' Vigilance regarding informed consent is therefore essential throughout the research process.
Guidelines on informed consent
Clearly informed consent is high on the ethics agenda for online researchers. Overall while there is still much debate, there is an emerging consensus regarding informed consent. Generally speaking for private or semi-private sources (mail, closed chat room) informed consent is considered essential whereas in open access forum (newsgroups, bulletin boards), it is suggested that informed consent may not always be essential. Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002, 5) recommend that the greater the acknowledged publicity of the venue, the less obligation there may be to protect individual privacy, confidentiality and the right to informed consent.
Examples of good practice in gaining consent
Penny Cholmondeley (University of Alberta)
The study consisted of a survey evaluating the 'WISEST (Women in Scholarship, Engineering, Science and Technology)' Resource Network. An extensive project information page was provided covering key ethical issues. The survey itself was followed by a consent form and participants were requested to signal consent by selecting the submit button.
Project information page
Survey - Project Information
How to Participate
Risks and Benefits
For questions or comments regarding this policy, or for additional information about the administration of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act, contact the University of Alberta Information and Privacy Office at (780) 492-9419 or visit the Univesity’s FOIPP home page at http://www.ualberta.ca/FOIPP/
This study has been reviewed and approved by the Faculties of Education and Extension Research Ethics Board (REB) at the University of Alberta. Questions regarding participant rights and ethical conduct of research, contact the Chair of the REB using the following contact information:
Dr. Marco Adria
Online Consent Agreement for Research Participation
To submit your survey, click "Submit Survey"
To clear the survey or withdraw your consent, click "Clear Survey"
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