Sunday, 22 July 2012

Ethical Issues in Conducting Qualitative Research in Online Communities

In advance of our knowledge exchange-session on July 24th Lynne Roberts discusses the ethics of conducting qualitative research in online communities

Ethical research balances potential benefits from research against potential harm to research participants or others; but what constitutes harm within online communities? Researchers’ use of qualitative data obtained online poses unique ethical challenges because of the traceability of quotes and often sensitive content. Three key areas that require consideration when conducting qualitative research within online communities are:

  • Public Versus Private Space: What determines whether an online community constitutes public space or private space?  It can, and has, been argued that online communities that are not password protected are public spaces. However, increasingly it is being recognised that although some online communities might be publicly accessible, members of these communities often do not view them as public spaces. When making an assessment of whether an online community should be regarded as private or public, consideration needs to be given to the accessibility of the community to the general public, the perceptions of members, community statements, topic and setting sensitivity, the permanence of records and the intended audience.
  • Research Participants Versus Authors: Should existing data within an online community be treated as originating from human research participants or authors? The answer to this question determines whether informed consent or complying with copyright should be the aim when quoting material. Researchers need to determine whether it is more defensible to provide attribution for material to the offline identity, the pseudonym, a pseudonym of the pseudonym or to create composite accounts. Similarly consideration needs to be given as to whether the specific online community should be named. Even where the pseudonym and online community are not named, these may be locatable through online search engines. Researchers who neither obtain informed consent nor reference the material risk violating both ethical and copyright standards.
  • Researcher Disclosure: Is it acceptable to conduct covert research without identifying as a researcher to the community?  Is the use of deception or created identities to elicit new data acceptable? How might the community and community members react to finding out that they are being researched? 
Increasingly disciplines are grappling with the issues of online research and creating ethical guidelines for members. However, each research project requires consideration of the possible risks and benefits and the potential impact of the proposed research on the online community and community members.

Dr Lynne Roberts is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University in Western Australia. Lynne’s online research interests include social interaction online, cybercrime, cybervictimisation and online research ethics. This blog entry provides a summary of a paper presented at the RC33 Eighth International Social Science Methodology Conference in Sydney, Australia in July 2012


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