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Exploring online research methods - Incorporating TRI-ORM

Practical issues including online libel, spam, viruses and copyright issues

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Open/close headingOnline libel

According to Jones (2004, 184), ethical issues are concerned with values while legal issues are concerned with human or financial issues. Ethical issues are connected to legal issues for the online researcher. Although the internet is becoming subject to legislation, many of the laws covering online research are still at present customary rather than legally enshrined. According to Mann and Stewart (2000, 39), many areas still require legal definition including jurisdiction, intellectual property, security (including personal security from virtual assault, harassment and stalking), encryption, signatures and certification (see Thomas 1988 for further detail). However, in the meantime, Mann and Stewart (2000, 45) suggest that open discussion of contentious and provocative subject matter may be problematic. As electronic communication is considered to be in the public arena, participants and service providers may be held legally responsible for online messages. For example, in the UK the Electronics Communications Privacy Act became law in 1988 and since then many bulletin boards have started to post disclaimers citing this law. Furthermore, care must be taken as any legal jurisdiction under which online research falls will vary with different nation states. And this complicates the picture for the online researcher who is conducting cross-national research. According to Ess and the Ess and the AoIR Ethics Working Committee (2002, 6), a researcher should consider how far existing legal requirements and ethical guidelines in your discipline 'cover' your research and how far existing legal requirements in the countries implicated in your research apply? A few key sources are available, which discuss morality and law in cyberspace (see Murray 2003, Spinello 2003; 2004 and links below). Moreover, data should be collected, stored and used in accord with data protection legislation.


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[Open/close heading]Spam and viruses

Spam is junk email, usually advertisements, for example promoting medicines, banking facilities or computer equipment. Spam mail can be reported to the postmaster in charge of the email or to the managers of the server who can try and forward the complaint to the address of the spam mail (O'Dochartaigh 2002, 84). Filters can also be set up to redirect the spam into a folder which can be deleted once the spam mail has been checked for genuine messages. The online researcher must ensure that their invitations to join the research project are not considered spam mail and Bruckman (2002a) cautions that the process of requesting consent must not disrupt normal group activity. Viruses can also be transmitted by email, word documents and Excel files but can be picked up by anti-virus software. Thus the online researcher must ensure that they never forward any viruses with their emails or attachments. Indeed Hewson et al. (2003, 117) note that a researcher using attachments can become a 'global pariah' and it is best to refrain from using attachments all together and stick to text-based messaging. But there are also risks to researchers from viruses picked up during online research. To avoid this, researchers should also install anti-virus software on their computer and ensure that it is kept up to date.


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[Open/close heading]Online copyright

Copyright is a very important issue to be considered by the online researcher and usually conventions follow those of offline sources. The use of text and images from the internet must follow copyright legislation including intellectual property rights and trade-marks. It is not acceptable, for example, to copy large chunks of other people's work from the internet and put it on your site or research project without asking. According to O'Dochartaigh (2002, 248), you can copy and paste a limited amount under 'fair use' guidelines. The rough guide is that you can quote up to 300 words from a book or 150 words from a newspaper or journal article, where the excerpt is less than 20% of the original work. However, there are a lot of ambiguities and grey areas in 'fair use' legislation and the online researcher must be very careful, especially if there is a likelihood of eventual publication for financial gain. But generally when using sources other than your own you must give credit to the author and publisher, citing the original document fully (O'Dochartaigh 2002, 248). Images must not be copied from other sites or photos scanned into your site/research project unless express permission has been given. If you are linking to documents on someone else's site you should also link to their home page as a matter of courtesy so the source is clear. Proper credit must always be given for intellectual property through clear citation of internet sources. This should include the author, title of publication, site accessed, date accessed, page or section (if relevant) and URL.

However, in many cases the situation is not clear-cut. Who 'owns' a message posted to a chat room discussion? Is it 'fair use' to publish a collection of discussion 'threads' from a discussion forum? In sending a message is there not an 'implied license'’ for others to read the information it contains? Some guidelines exist here. According to Bruckman (2002a), you may freely quote and analyse online information if it is officially and publicly archived, no password is required for archive access, no site policy prohibits it and if the topic is not highly sensitive.


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Open/close headingUseful links

Cyber-Rights and Cyber-Liberties
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.cyber-rights.org/
A non-profit civil liberties organisation which aims to promote free speech and privacy on the internet.

Internet Law and Policy Reform
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.ilpf.org/
An international nonprofit organization dedicated to the sustainable global development of the internet through legal and public policy initiatives.

Lawrence Lessig (Stanford Law School)
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.lessig.org/
Home page of the author of Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. Contains news on issues such as copyright on the internet of relevance to Lessig's work.

The Council of Europe. Convention on Cybercrime
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://conventions.coe.int/ Treaty/Commun/ ListeTraites.asp? MA=49&CM=7&CL=ENG
Provides the full text of the Council of Europe's convention on cybercrime including the additional protocol on rascist acts. Provides explanatory reports and summaries.

UK Information commissioner's site
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.informationcommissioner.gov.uk/
Website of the independent official appointed by the Crown to oversee the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Contains a range of information about UK legislation on these issues.

Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC): Data protection webpages
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.jisclegal.ac.uk/LegalAreas/DataProtection.aspx
A range of data protection resources including a code of practice and a briefing paper.

The University of Essex: Data protection webpages
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www2.essex.ac.uk/rm/dp/text_index.shtm
Comprehensive information about the University's data protection policies, including background information and links.

Lancaster University: Data Protection Project 2000-01
[External Link - opens in a new window] http://www.dpa.lancs.ac.uk/
A website aiming to provide a guide to Higher Education Institutions in the UK in complying with the Data Protection Act 1998.


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