Amy Aisha Brown is a research student in the Faculty of Education and Language Studies at the Open University and is PhD Blogger for the NSMNSS Network. She reflects here on the current state of ethics for her research project, outlined in this post.
At a conference I attended recently, a plenary speaker give an inspiring talk about using YouTube videos to research various sociolinguistic phenomena. However, I was a little surprised by the fact that he failed to mention any ethical considerations that researchers might need to take in using them. I say I was surprised, but I wasn’t really surprised: It seems to be a common argument in many fields that says, “if someone was happy enough to post it, and if anyone with an internet connection can access it, then why shouldn’t it be collected and researched?”
This argument is easy to apply to tweets (the data I use) because Twitter only lets you see and collect public tweets. Furthermore, users agree to their tweets being collected because when they sign up, they accept Twitter’s Terms of Service (TOS) that include warnings that broad re-use of content is both permitted and encouraged. The problem I have with this standpoint is that it treats tweets simply as texts and largely ignores the human beings who produce them.
In relation to my research, I find myself having to question whether this gives sufficient consideration to ethical issues, particularly the potential for my research to cause harm through the publication of examples from my dataset. For example, it is common practice to cite supporting examples in discourse analyses, but would there not be a real cause for concern if, for instance, a child user could be identified?
Some might argue that using Twitter data at all for my research is unethical because without directly asking for the permission from every user who authored one of the tweets, it goes against the principle of informed consent (e.g., Davidson, 2012). Twitter users might have technically agreed to the TOS but how can I know that they ever read and understood them? The problem with this stance, however, is that it would prevent medium-large scale analyses of social media data, neglecting the social benefits of research.
My personal approach lies somewhere in the middle: I collect tweets and treat them as texts for the purposes of my research, but I also need to recognise the human element and assess the potential for harm at every stage of the research. The recent Ethics Guide of the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) has been influential in helping me come to this position, but they also point out that advice and support from people within and outside of the field is necessary to make decisions in an informed manner in this emerging field. For this reason, it is going to be great to talk about ethics this week at an event with experts in the field and co-coordinators of the #NSMNSS network. Watch this space for feedback after the event.