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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Debriefing and feedback procedures

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Open/close headingDebriefing

Onsite ethical guidelines generally expect the researcher to debrief the participants after the research process. In onsite research this might involve a face-to-face meeting or a written report to explain the results of the study and to invite comment and queries. At this point the researcher can determine whether the participant has suffered any harm from the research process and can take measures to address this. In internet-mediated research this debriefing might involve an email to all participants or the setting up of a dedicated website to locate any published materials, including a contact address and invitation for comment. But there is no guarantee that the participant will read the email or visit the website. However, lack of participant involvement in the debriefing process is not confined to online research. This debriefing situation is complicated in cross-national research projects. Distance is likely to restrict face-to-face debriefing and this may be picked up by ethical committees. Anders (2000), quoted by Mann and Stewart 2000), for example, was required by her ethics committee to make sure she could organize counselling in the state and country of her research participants if necessary. Moreover, debriefing must be sensitive to the cultural make up of the online research venue and its participants.


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[Open/close heading]Feedback procedures

Chen et al. (2004, 171) go further, arguing that this debriefing should also include the sharing of research results, so that the online community is made aware of the information that has been gathered from them. This sharing of research results can promote more egalitarian research relationships and can result in corrections to the researcher's analysis and interpretation of data. In this manner, sharing research results can 'repel the feeling of being used by the researcher for selfish gains' (Chen et al. 2004, 172). As Breuder (personal communication, 2005) so aptly observes, since the amount of online research conducted is increasing rapidly, often too little is done to build a long-term positive research environment. Many researchers are far more concerned with 'harvesting' cheap participants than with providing an equitable research environment. As Bruder (personal communication, 2005) suggests: 'Apart from things that should be standard, like a thorough debriefing and the possibility for the participant to provide feedback, one way to go seems to be to provide detailed individual feedback, e.g. on questionnaire results. This has its own ethical problems and, unfortunately, ethics committees at this stage are often reluctant to agree to it. Still, apart from monetary reward, it seems to me nearly the only way to achieve what is ethically prescribed: equal gains on both sides of the research process.'


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[Open/close heading]Case study: Participatory research and internet activism (Jenny Pickerill, University of Leicester)


Image of a Sydney media lab, showing a series of computers and various posters on the walls.
Sydney media lab, 2001. Part of a broader activist
space which enabled free use of computing.

Participatory research and internet activism (Jenny Pickerill, Department of Geography, University of Leicester)

My research has tended to focus on examining how activists involved in environmental and social change politics utilise the internet – their internet activism (Pickerill 2003). It is often the more radical activists who have been most inventive and exploratory in their use of the internet and thus it has been these groups who I have sought to engage in my research. These choices, however, were also influenced by my own politics and my broader participation and commitment to environmental and social change activism. Thus I have sought to combine good reflexive methodological practice (through participatory research and in-depth interviews) with action-orientated research that seeks to ‘change the landscape’ rather than just survey and map it.

I was interested in what opportunities and tensions the internet offered to activists. What was of interest was less what they posted on-line, or discussions they had on-line, but the role that the internet played in the broader dynamics of activism and activists everyday lives. I did this through interviews and participant observation. In some cases actually writing parts of the groups’ websites myself - using my research as a way to aid the campaigns and thus directly interfering in the dynamics I was exploring.

This involvement facilitates access to the people I was interested in but also complicates the researchers’ positionality. This involvement brings with it an ethics of commitment and a responsibility not only for fair representation, and confidentiality, but also for action. Thus there is a responsibility to present your work in a constructive way, not simply a critique or deconstruction of somebody else's hard work. Moreover, there is a culture within such radical activism that can serve to smooth over internal dissent – the ideology that doing something is better than nothing and that you should not criticise unless you are prepared to change things yourself. Thus academic work too must help such movements move forward.

Crucial to such research then are the moments of debriefing and feedback. In all of this work I sought to develop a feedback loop whereby drafts of my work were returned to interviewees and groups and their comments fed into the final pieces. Drafts and final pieces were posted on-line and distributed via summary hardcopy booklets. Thus such research becomes about honesty, responsibility, and sharing; being honest about one’s position and what you intend to use the research for: A responsibility to look after data collected, seek permission for its use, to take action through our research and to write in such a way that is useful and constructive to participants involved; and sharing everything you have learned during the process and your outcomes with those who took part.


Pickerill, J. (2003) Cyberprotest: Environmental Activism On-Line. Manchester University Press. Manchester.
(For more details see [External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.jennypickerill.info/book.html)


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