April 5, 2007

Lit Review: Using Empirical Research Data to Reason about Internet Research Ethics

• The Internet blurs notions of public vs. private, published vs. unpublished, and identified vs. anonymous individuals.

Reasonable Expectations of Privacy
• How do we know when individuals expect privacy on the internet?
• If membership is unrestricted, some researchers declare it a public space. Others argue that the ephemeral nature of online conversations creates the expectation that they will not be recorded.
• The disinhibiting nature of online environments creates a false illusion of privacy.

A Need For Empirical Work
• Knowing what people do does not inform us on what they should do; we need to know how subjects feel.
• How much do users object when they know they are being studied in a public online environment?
• Empirical study of chatroom responses to 4 conditions of declaring research intent conducted- 4 times more likely to be kicked out of the chatroom if the researchers said anything about recording.
• The requirement of informed consent can be waived if there is little risk to the subjects, there is no other way to conduct the research, and subjects will be debriefed following their participation in the study.

• Only one individual expressed interest in learning more about the study.
• Reasons to believe in privacy online: ephemerality of text, invisibility of audience, feelings of anonymity.
• It could be argued that violating a person's right to consent to a study constitutes harm, even if they remain unaware.
• Must convince an IRB to issue a formal waiver of consent.
• Individuals filling out surveys on the computer reveal much more than they would on paper surveys (Greist et al, 1973; Weisband & Kiesler, 1996).
• Power hierarchies in f2f environments disappear in online discussions (Sproull & Kiesler, 1991)
• Shy students have no problem interacting online (Bruce et al, 1993; Hudson & Bruckman, 2002, 2004a)
• Polite people get into flame wars online (Dery, 1993)
• Novice bloggers are not concerned about privacy (Nardi et al, 2004) despite problems of unintended audiences (Hart, 2005)

Beyond the US

• Notions of privacy are culture-specific- online research risks involving populations from other cultures.
• Like countries, online communities develop their own cultural norms.

While this study makes a good case for the potentially negative reprecussions of asking consent of participants in online environments, I personally have had the opposite response. I've found that the anonymity of the Internet has a positive effect on participant response and willingness to engage with the subject matter.

Chatroom environments have a more intimate and ephemeral nature, as opposed to message-board style online social networks such as Tribe. Especially pertaining to intimate matters (see my work on LiveJournal and OpenDiary eating disorder communities), seeking connection and empathic understanding should take precedence.

Literature to Look Into:
• Bassett, E. H., & O'Riordan, K. (2002). Ethics of Internet Research: Contesting the Human Subjects Research Model. Ethics and Information Technology, 4(3).
• Boehlefeld, S. P. (1996). Doing the Right Thing: Ethical Cyberspace Research. The Information Society, 12(2), 141 - 152.
• Bruckman, A. (2002). Studying the Amateur Artist: A Perspective on Disguising Data Collected in Human Subjects Research on the Internet. Ethics and Information Technology, 4(3), 217- 231.
• Danet, B.
• Ess, C. (2002). Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research: Recommendations from the AoIR Ethics Working Committee
• Eysenbach, G., & Till, J. E. (2001, 10 November). Ethical Issues in Qualitative Research on Internet Communities. BMJ, 323, 1103-1105.
• Herring, S. (1996a). Linguistic and Critical Analysis of Computer-Mediated Communication: Some Ethical and Scholarly Considerations. The Information Society, 12(2), 153 - 168.
• Herring, S. C. (Ed.). (1996b). Computer-Mediated Communication: Linguistic, Social and Cross-Cultural Perspectives.
• Joinson, A. N.
• Keller, H. E., & Lee, S. (2003). Ethical Issues Surrounding Human Participants Research Using the Internet. Ethics and Behavior, 13(3), 211 - 219.
• Nonnecke, B., & Preece, J. (2000). Lurker Demographics: Counting the Silent. In Preedeedings of the 2000 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI) (pp. 73-80).


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