What are our ethical responsibilities in a changing world of Internet research?

Jon Swain. 

Over the last decade or so there has been an ever-increasing interest in the ethics of educational and social science research. Researchers’ responsibilities to their participants, fellow members of the research community, and to the institution where they work or study are receiving more attention. Universities now have their own Research Ethics Committees, and there are various ethical guides and frameworks to choose from.

The ever-growing area of Internet research has opened up new debates that have unsettled some of the previous assumptions and expectations of what it actually means to be ethical for both researchers and Internet users. As a social phenomenon, the internet not only has a profound impact on the way ideas are formed and knowledge is created, but also provides students and academics with a wealth of new and rich opportunities to carry out research with the added advantage of not having to leave their desk. However, the research also has its own particular social and ethical implications, which arise from mass public access to information resources such as discussion forums and platforms, but also email, web pages and various forms of ‘instant messaging’.

Some of the areas where Internet researchers have to take particular care are those concerned with insider research (where you are researching your own community); deception (where you do not tell the truth of what you are trying to do); covert research (where participants are unaware they are being researched), and participants’ right to privacy (or anonymity). Another issue which is particularly pertinent to ethical practice in Internet research is the data/persons controversy. For instance, is an avatar a person? Are you working with human subjects or not and, if you are, how can they be protected when you are analysing particular data sets?

Many of these themes can be seen in the PhD research from an ex-IOE student, Natasha Whiteman, who carried out observational online research on two Internet-based fan groups. Whiteman, and many other Internet researchers, argue that they need to be adaptable and responsive to diverse contexts, and to the continually changing technologies. Using textual analysis of written exchanges, she was interested in issues of power and how online avatar identities were constructed and performed through online exchanges. She did not post on the sites or disclose her position as observer; her research did not involve any attempt to contact participant members of the sites. Her role was that of a ‘lurker’, rather than a participant. No one agreed to any informed consent and her justification of her covert position was that there were no passwords needed to access the site and therefore it was public.

This approach is a move away from top-down regulatory models, and emphasises the process approach to ethics, which highlights the researcher’s own agency and responsibility for making judgments and decisions within highly specific contexts. This process is dialogic and inductive, and needs to be decided upon case by case.

Many researchers think that ethical frameworks and guides have led to a greater stability in research ethics and have welcomed the fact that they can turn to a set of generalisable principles and aims. However, others regard this as an increasing bureaucratisation of research, with a more negative effect on the field. They see debates being ‘closed down’ and reduced to discussions around a series of now familiar themes (e.g. voluntary participation, anonymity), with researchers ticking off a list of key ethical principles or expectations that they are going to cover.

These issues are discussed in more detail in my new book that is aimed at postgraduate students, or early career academics, conducting research across education and educational studies. The book is not about how to do research, rather it is to help doctoral students design and conceptualise their particular research projects, understand the philosophical foundations of their work, refine their research questions and choose the right methodology. The designs considered include case studies, ethnography, experimental design, and survey research, and are fleshed out with a series of real life examples from the writers own research projects. There are also chapters on mixed methods, epistemology and ontology and, of course, ethical considerations that arise both in real and virtual worlds.

Designing Research in Education: concepts and methodologies, edited by Jon Swain, is published by Sage

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Posted in Further higher and lifelong education, Research matters, Social sciences and social policy

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UCL Institute of Education

This blog was written by academics at the UCL Institute of Education (IOE), for anyone interested in current issues in education and related social sciences.
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