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

Guiding Research Ethics Principles

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Principles of research ethics and ethical treatment of persons are codified in a number of policies and accepted documents, such as the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the Nuremberg Code, the Declaration of Helsinki, the Belmont Report, and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights. At their core, the basic tenets include the fundamental rights of human dignity, autonomy, protection, safety, maximization of benefits and minimization of harms, and knowledge, or, in their most currently accepted phrasing, respect for persons, justice, and beneficence. While originally stemming from the biomedical contexts, these principles have been adapted beyond these early contexts and rise above disciplines and methodologies.  We accept them as basic to any research endeavor. In addition to these principles, researchers must be attendant to extant legal requirements in the countries implicated in the research.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Ethical research is that which seeks to minimize harm. Defining and identifying potential ‘harm’ in Internet research can be difficult, as technologies blur boundaries of traditional, more easily identifiable dichotomies, such as public-private, researcher-researched, subject-object. The ethical dilemmas that arise in Internet research often resists yes-no binaries, thus making decision-making flow charts used by some research boards inapplicable. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers Human Subjects Regulations Decision Charts where one of the first questions is “Does the research involve intervention or interaction with the individuals?”  But what constitutes intervention or interaction on the Internet, particularly in social networking sites, virtual worlds, and massively multiplayer online games, is often not so easy to determine, calling for careful consideration of the particular circumstances of the context and careful consideration of other relevant cases (see bibliography for sources grouped by topic).

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The following sections are designed to help guide one’s consideration.  We begin with a brief list of broad ethical considerations that ground all research, followed by a list of questions more attuned to Internet research. These detailed sets of questions may enable a researcher to become aware of ethical dilemmas and challenges that may go otherwise unnoticed. We then provide a heuristic chart that lays out a similar array of questions arising in studies of particular contexts/venues or with particularly types of information or data produced or retrieved from those contexts.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 As emphasized in the casuistic, or case-based approach to Internet research ethics developed by McKee and Porter (2009), reviewing other researchers’ approaches can provide examples of the range of judgments possible, to guide one’s own judgments in relevantly similar cases. To aid in further consideration, we provide in the bibliography a comprehensive listing of  references that will give researchers and reviewers a range of studies that encounter or discuss specific types of ethical challenges in Internet settings.