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

Internet Specific Ethical Questions

Permalink for this paragraph 0 The list below begins with common questions asked in the course of a research project. The bullet points represent more specific considerations that arise in Internet-related contexts.

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What is the context or venue?

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  • How is the context defined and conceptualized in the project? Does this match the way owners, users, or members might define it?6) (e.g., parameters such as ‘culture,’ ‘person,’ ‘data set,’ and ‘public text’ each carry different ethical expectations for researchers)
  • What are the ethical expectations of the venue, particularly around issues of privacy? Both for individual participants as well as the community as a whole?
  • How are subjects / authors situated in the context?
  • How is the researcher situated in the context?7)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 Who is involved in the study?

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  • What are the ethical expectations of the community/subjects/authors?
  • What is the ethical stance of the researcher? (E.g., a mismatch between the ethical stance of the researcher and the community/subject/author may create ethical complications)8)
  • What are the ethical traditions of researchers’ and/or author/subjects’ cultures or countries?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What is the primary object of study?

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  • What are the ethical expectations commonly associated with this type of data? (E.g., working with aggregated, de-identified data carries different ethical expectations than working with interview data.)
  • What other questions might arise as a result of the particular context from which this data was collected?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What are the methods and methodological approaches of the researcher?

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  • What are the ethical expectations of the research community associated with the particular approaches (e.g, ethnographic, survey, linguistic analysis)?
  • What potential harms might arise as a result of one’s choice of methods? (E.g., would quoting directly from a blog cause harm to the blogger and if so, could another method of representation be less risky?9)

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What are the potential harms or risks associated with this study–for individuals, for online communities, for researchers, for research?

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  • How are the concepts of ‘vulnerability’ and ‘harm’ being defined and operationalized in the study? How are risks to the community/author/subject being assessed?
  • Would a mismatch between researcher and community/subject/author definitions of ‘harm’ or ‘vulnerability’ create an ethical dilemma? If so, how would this be addressed?
  • What harms–to life, to career, to reputation–may occur from the research? (e.g., would the research “out” an LGBTQ individual who is not publicly out and perhaps cause them to lose their jobs? Would the research cause someone to face criminal or civil penalties?)
  • What possible harms to privacy may occur? (e.g., online groups disbanding or individuals ceasing to use an online support group or withdraw from blogging activities because of the presence of researchers10; individuals feeling that real or perceived privacy has been violated11; individuals being made anonymous against their wish to remain known and public in any published results)
  • Who or what else could cause harm to the author/participant beyond the researcher?
  • Are we acting in ways that minimizes risk?
  • Does our research adequately protect the researcher as well as the community/author/subject?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What are potential benefits associated with this study?

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  • Who benefits from the study–do the potential subjects? If not, what greater benefit justifies the potential risks?
  • Is the research aiming at a good or desirable goal?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 How are we recognizing the autonomy of others and acknowledging that they are of equal worth to ourselves and should be treated so?

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  • Will informed consent be required from subjects?
  • If so, what what procedures to obtain consent will be followed? (E.g., print or digital signatures, virtual consent tokens, click boxes or waiver of documented consent)12
  • Will consent be obtained just from individuals or from communities and online system administrators?
  • What harm might result from asking for consent, or through the process of asking for consent?13
  • How will the researcher ensure that participants are truly informed?
  • Are vulnerable persons being protected? How is vulnerability determined in contexts where this categorization may not be apparent?
  • How will parental or guardian consent be obtained in addition to assent where required by research regulations?

Permalink for this paragraph 0 What issues should be considered because of the technologies involved in the conduct of this study?

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  • In situations whereby consent is desired but written informed consent is impossible (or in regulatory criteria, impracticable) or potentially harmful, will procedures or requirements be modified? What other ethical concerns might arise if informed consent is not obtained?
  • If access to an online context is publicly available, do members/subjects/authors perceive the context to be public? What considerations might be necessary to accommodate ‘perceived privacy’14) or the notion that individuals might care more about the appropriate flow of information as defining it as public or private15?
  • In situations where identity, age, and ability of the participant is unknown or hidden, and harm cannot be determined as an a priori category based on known vulnerability of participant, how will harm be considered as an ethical concern and operationalized in the study?
  • If information collected in the course of a study can be linked back to an individual by means of Internet search or other technology, what process will the researcher use to determine how that information will be treated?16) (E.g., many challenges surround the responsible use of images and video). Is this data considered by the participant to be personal and private or public and freely available for analysis and re-publication?
  • What method is being used to secure and manage potentially sensitive data? What unanticipated breaches might occur during or after the collection and storage of data or the production of reports?17) (E.g., if an audience member recorded and posted sensitive material presented during an in-house research presentation, what harms might result?)
  1. See for example Hudson & Bruckman (2004); Gajjala (2004); Ikonomidis Svedmark & Nyberg (2009); Baker (2009 []
  2. See for example Markham (2009 []
  3. See for example Ayers (2003 []
  4. See for example Ikonomidis Svedmark & Nyberg (2009). []
  5. See for example Bromseth (2002); Kraut et al., (2003). []
  6. The complexity of this situation has been discussed and studied extensively. Sveningsson-Elm (2004) provides a useful model for mapping distinctions between actual and perceived privacy; boyd & Marwick (2011) offer recent discussions with teens to complicate the notion of privacy, including a keen example of how teens felt violated by the use of their profiles in a school-wide presentation by administrators, even as they knew their information was public (p. 6). Nissenbaum (2010) and Nippert-Eng (2010) write extensively about the complications of privacy.  Also, the Association of Internet Researchers list archives contain extensive discussion of this issue. []
  7. Although in some cases, traditional informed consent procedures may be warranted, in other cases, these may not be the most ethically sensitive approach.  As recommended by the 2010 AOIR Ethics workshop: “Informed consent may happen at different points throughout a study, Sometimes it may be more ethical to get informed consent at the end when you want to present a specific case study or quote an individual or focus on a particular element. Therefore, informed consent should be always an inductive process” (Buchanan, Markham, & Ess, 2010). []
  8. See for example Stern (2003);  Ikonomidis Svedmark (2011). []
  9. For further discussion of this, see for example Sveningsson (2003), Sveningsson-Elm (2008) and McKee & Porter (2009 []
  10. For further discussion, see Nissenbaum (2010). []
  11. See for example Sweeny (2003 []
  12. See for example Zimmer (2010 []
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