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Ethics Working Committee Draft. Do Not Distribute. For Review Only.

The Distance Principle

Permalink for this paragraph 1 As knowledge production becomes more dependent on information derived from some sort of Internet research, we recognize that the “objects” of scientific research are more person-based than not. This has become clear to our group over the past twenty years of Internet development. For instance, a researcher cannot talk about discursive or physical participation in the online information sphere without acknowledging that this necessarily involves a person somewhere in the process—a person who is thinking and behaving within his or her own cultural and moral stances.2

Permalink for this paragraph 1 The Internet complicates the fundamental research ethics question of personhood (Is an avatar a person?  Can we assume a person is wholly removed from large data pools?) and harm (does the connection between an online identity and his or her real-life person enable psychological, economic, physical, harm?).  Due to the complexity of Internet contexts, harm may not be immediately visible, but may emerge at any point in the research process3). The fluidity of Internet contexts requires that researchers attend to ethical issues throughout the process, not simply at the beginning. Researchers and reviewers should be prepared to address this reality.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 One way of evaluating the extent to which the ethical dilemmas may be hidden is to focus on the way that procedures for data collection or analysis extract data from the context.  As the conceptual or experiential distance between the researcher and author/participant decreases, we are more likely to naturally define the research scenario as one that involves “humans.”  For example, an email or virtual worlds interview produces data that is experientially near the participant.  In this situation, it is likely that the researcher would recognize that this information gathering process involves a human participant.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 As the conceptual or experiential distance between the object of research and the person who produced it increases, there may be a tendency to define the research scenario as one that does not involve “human.” For example, a data set containing thousands of tweets or an aggregation of surfing behaviors collected from a bot is conceptually distant from the persons who engaged in these activities.  In this latter scenario, however, there is a greater possibility for forgetting that there was ever a person somewhere in the process that could be directly or indirectly impacted by the research.

Permalink for this paragraph 3 It is apparent that that Internet technologies have the capacity to effectively blur the boundary between a private person and a public text, and that persons hold varying standpoints in relation to their production and consumption of information. Considering this distance principle can help one recognize that the relationship between persons and data is not always clear.  For example, considering the question: “Is this a text or a person?” in a particular case involves a process of analyzing the conceptual distance between the object of research and the persons whose activities created this data, consulting a range of perspectives from previous studies, identifying and assessing individual or community expectations and definitions, and making an ethical judgment.

  1. This does not necessarily equate to definition of the person as a “human subject” as defined and by the U.S. regulatory model, but may suggest consideration of the premises underlying this categorization and adoption of practices suggested within this model. []
  2. See for example Gajjala’s experience with South Asian listserv communities (2004); Stern’s experience with minors (2003 []
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