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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

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Open/close headingCan I use existing ethical guidelines or do I need to refer to ethical guidelines that specifically refer to online research?

There is much debate over this issue. Some argue that because online/offline worlds are mutually constituted, and we carry our real-world assumptions, norms and behaviours into cyberspace, then we can clearly draw on onsite ethical guidelines while others suggest that there is something special about the online research environment that necessitates the development of a set of ethical guidelines specifically pertaining to the virtual venue. 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 results in increased difficulty in ascertaining ethically correct approaches because of the greater diversity of research venues and because of the global reach of the media involved.


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[Open/close heading]What ethical guidelines exist for online research?

There are many but the following are a useful starting point:

Ess, C. and AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002) Ethical decision-making and internet research: recommendations form the AoIR ethics working committee.
([External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.aoir.org/reports/ethics.pdf).

Bruckman, A. (2002a) Ethical Guidelines for Research online
([External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/ethics/).

American Association for the Advancement of Science Ethical and Legal Aspects of Human Subjects Research in Cyberspace
([External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.aaas.org/spp/sfrl/projects/intres/main.htm)

John Suler (2000) Ethics in cyberspace research
([External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/ethics.html)

See also the 'Further resources' section of the 'Ethics' module for other examples.


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[Open/close heading]Do I need to get informed consent when conducting research in chat rooms and bulletin boards?

There is some debate over this issue but generally speaking for private or semi-private sources (mail, closed chat rooms) informed consent is considered essential, whereas in open access forum (newsgroups/bulletin boards), it is suggested that informed consent may not be so 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.


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Open/close headingHow can I improve data security issues when researching online?

Data security can be improved by the use of web-based questionnaires rather than email questionnaires, or the respondent can be encouraged to complete the questionnaire on an anonymous machine in a library or internet café and then print it off and post it to the researcher. Encryption can ensure email messages can only be encrypted by the intended recipient but equally it may complicate a project because all participants must use email software that shares the same encryption capability and the researcher and participants must have the technology in order to use the software. Additionally, encryption is illegal in some countries and may be viewed suspiciously by governments. Also a general way to increase data security is to regularly back up research data and store it in the most secure location possible.


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[Open/close heading]Are participants’ expectations of privacy important?

Yes! Expectations of privacy are the important issue and different venues may have different expectations. Many social messages exchanged through the internet can foster the illusion of privacy because correspondents do not see the numerous people reading their messages, including 'lurkers' to sites, so individuals often believe they are communicating with a small group rather than a large audience. So a key issue facing the online researcher is whether the individual or group considers their correspondence to be public or private. According to Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002, 7) if the participants of the research believe that their communications are made in private, or if they are understood as subjects participating in private exchanges via chat rooms/MUDs or MOOs, then there may be a greater obligation for the researcher to protect individual privacy. But if the research focuses on publicly accessible archives and if inter/actions by authors/agents are public and performative (for example e-mail postings to large listservs or USENET groups, or production of web logs and home pages), then there may be less obligation to protect individual privacy.


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[Open/close heading]Should I give the participants feedback on outcomes/results of the research?

Generally, yes, although this will of course depend on the underlying methodological approach to the research and the research topic. Chen et al. (2004, 171) argue that debriefing should 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 '‘repel the feeling of being used by the researcher for selfish gains' (Chen et al. 2004, 172).


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Open/close headingHow and why is netiquette important to the online researcher?

Based on their research with newsgroups, Hall et al. (2004, 244-247) recognize 6 issues of importance where netiquette is concerned.

  1. The importance of the subject header used in any posting to a newsgroup, to assure no misunderstandings between the researcher and newsgroup members occur.
  2. Self-identification and self-presentation of the researcher are critical, as readers will form their evaluations about the credibility of the research and the researcher based on this. A formal verifiable, disclosed identity of the researcher, for example through a link to an institutional website, can increase the credibility of the researchers claimed identity see (Madge and O’Connor 2002) and shows respect and courtesy to members of the newsgroup.
  3. The researcher must be familiar with the common language used on the specific newsgroup, including jargon, abbreviations, acronyms, emoticons and common grammatical rules. The ability to 'speak' the newsgroups 'language' shows respect to the rules and conventions of the group.
  4. The researcher should always ask appropriate questions, not ones that could have been answered by a library or archive search, and to do this the researcher should acquaint themselves on the subject matter before asking for help.
  5. The specific culture of the newsgroup should be absorbed through online acclimation or reading FAQs and archives prior to 'jumping in', in order to understand the nuances of group interactions.
  6. The researcher has an obligation to be 'up front' about the purpose, nature, procedures and risks of the research.


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Open/close headingWhat organizations can I contact if I am interested in finding out more about the digital divide?

The following are a good starting point but there are many more:

Digital Divide Network
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.digitaldivide.net/
An online community for educators, activists, policy makers and concerned citizens working to bridge the digital divide. Users can build their own online community, publish a blog, share documents and discussions with colleagues, and post news, events and articles.

[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.bridges.org/
An international non-profit organisation that promotes the effective use of ICT in the developing world to reduce poverty and improve people's lives.

The World Internet Project
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.worldinternetproject.net
A project which originated at the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Communication Policy and which has set out to investigate and document the impact of the spread of internet usage.

World Summit on the Information Society
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.itu.int/wsis/.
Website reporting on the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), the first phase of which took place in Geneva hosted by the Government of Switzerland from 10 to 12 December 2003. The second phase took place in Tunis hosted by the Government of Tunisia, from 16 to 18 November 2005.

id21 viewpoints: World Summit on the Information Society. What did it achieve for ICTs and Development? What did it ignore?
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.id21.org/ viewpoints/ WSISNov05.html.
Reflections from Richard Heeks of the University of Manchester on the 2005 World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS).

See the 'Further resources' section of the 'Ethics' module for other examples.


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[Open/close heading]Cookie

A small file that a web site stores on a user's computer in order to identify that user. Commonly, cookies are used to 'remember' site visitors so that if the visitor has chosen particular options, these are restored on return to the site. For example, this site uses cookies to remember selections added to the personal references list as a visitor moves from page to page.


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[Open/close heading]Digital divide

Term used to describe the situation whereby some regions of the world and some social groups are less 'connected' than others by virtue of their circumstances (nationality, income, age, ethnicity, gender) as some individuals may not have access to computer equipment, software and literacy or internet connections.


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[Open/close heading]Ethics

Broadly speaking, ethics refers to the standards established within a profession or academic discipline regarding the conduct of its members and is strongly linked to the concept of responsibility (cf Vujakovic and Bullard 2001).


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Open/close headingNetiquette

Term used to describe the code of conduct between those communicating on the internet. It is concerned with internet courtesy and protocols and is directed at preventing aggressive and insulting behaviour. It is frequently flexible and includes often unspoken rules about what is considered appropriate and polite and respectful behaviour online.


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[Open/close heading]Racial ravine

Term coined to describe the divide in the use of the internet in the USA, where only 5% of users are African-America and Latino households are even less likely to use the internet (Thurlow et al. 2004, 87).


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Open/close headingSpamming

Sending the same unsolicited message to a large group of people via email or by posting to a discussion list.


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