An off-list exchange on the xmca poster session idea has produced some
interesting threads, or rather, some interesting beginnings. Some of these
ideas will soon be appearing on the general discussion list for all
xmca'ers to observe, participate in, etc. We are in a brainstorming stage
- all ideas are encouraged.
One particular thread has been introduced by Don Cunningham. To the extent
this poster session and the research behind it refers to actual writings
and writers in xmca archives, what are its ethical and legal obligations to
the privacy rights - and the perceptions of privacy rights - of the
Susan Herring, whose work is discussed in the article below, also teaches
at Indiana University, which has an IRB (Institutional Review Board) with
policies about doing such online studies. Don has been in contact with
Susan. An important consideration in the particular case of the xmca
discussion list is that it does not require a password - its archives are
Below is a relevant article on this general issue of doing any kind of on
line studies on discussion lists, chat rooms, etc. These issues are just
emerging nationally and internationally.
Research Ethics in a Virtual World: Some Guidelines and Illustrations
<mailto:N.Jankowski@maw.kun.nl>Nicholas W. Jankowski and
<mailto:M.vanSelm@maw.kun.nl>Martine van Selm
Department of Communication, University of Nijmegen
P.O. Box 9104 6500 HE Nijmegen, The Netherlands
Perhaps one of the more contested areas in Internet research involves
ethical considerations for conducting online studies. A major report,
produced by the American Association for the Advancement of Science
(Frankel & Siang, 1999) prompted much reaction and stimulated other
researchers and associations to consider ethical issues of Internet
research. The Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) appointed an
Ethics Working Committee in 2000, and the first report from that body was
completed in 2001. During the AoIR conference held in October 2001, two
prominent online investigators, Amy Bruckman and Susan Herring, presented
their own tentative ethical guidelines for Internet research.
This paper reviews and comments on initiatives to establish ethical
guidelines for Internet research. This work is situated within more general
efforts to develop ethical guidelines for social science research.
Commonalties and differences are suggested between the ethical
considerations for doing research in the virtual and 'real' worlds.
Finally, several illustrations are given of online research situations and
related ethical issues.
Concern with the ethical facets of social science research has a long
tradition. Most professional associations of social science researchers
have, in fact, their own ethical codes or guidelines. In some countries,
particularly in the United States, guidelines for ethical practices have
been institutionalized into the procedures for grant applications and
research proposal assessment. Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) are
mandated by federal government funding bodies, and virtually all American
universities and research institutions that receive federal funds for
research have created and mandated IRBs. IRBs have come to be seen as the
major screening instruments for essentially all research conducted on
university campuses by staff and students for almost any form of research
involving human subjects. An illustration is given in the paper of the
breadth of the mandate awarded IRBs, covering the research projects of both
staff and students, work that is both large and small, global and local in
Enter the Internet
With the emergence of Internet research, confusion and concern have
developed as to how these IRBs are reacting to proposals for studies in
this new terrain. Much of the discussion relates to how the conventional
areas of concern by IRBs - protection of the privacy of subjects, assurance
of informed consent especially for studies involving children, and
prevention of harm to those involved in investigations - are to be applied
to studies involving the Internet. Some of this concern is, in fact, a
carry-over from earlier work performed on computers and human subjects
(e.g., Scharf, 1999). Not all studies involving the Internet, it should be
mentioned, make explicit reference to the ethical issues of online research
(e.g., Markham, 1998). The AAAS report was intended, in part, to rectify
this situation, and the subsequent discussions and report from the AoIR
Ethics Committee can be seen as extensions of this concern.
The AoIR Ethics Working Committee issued its first report in October 2001.
The original mandate of the committee requested formulation of a set of
values that all Internet researchers should uphold. The committee felt
there were special features of Internet research that required additional
attention beyond what was generally expected from social science
researchers involved in human subjects research. There is, they felt,
* ensuring individual privacy and confidentiality,
* obtaining informed consent,
* ascertaining the identity of subjects,
* determining the most suitable ethical approach because of the global
nature of the Internet. (see AoIR, 2001: 2). The report falls short of
establishing universal guidelines, other than reiterating the central
tenant found in most other guidelines for human subjects research -
stressing a duty to respect and protect humans as autonomous agents.
A member of the AoIR Ethics Working Committee, Amy Bruckman, developed
her own guidelines that reflect "a strict interpretation of what is
ethical." Susan Herring developed similar but less rigid guidelines for her
form of Internet research - discourse analysis of online interactions. Both
researchers presented their ethical codes at the AoIR conference held in
One of the points Bruckman addresses is the conditions under which
online exchanges may be quoted. She feels such material may be freely cited
* It is officially, publicly, permanently archived.
* No password is required to archive access.
* No site policy prohibits it.
* The topic is not highly sensitive. (Bruckman, 2001) In all other
cases, permission must be requested and, in the case of subjects under 18
years, consent must be in given in writing from parents or legal guardians.
One of the consequences of these guidelines is that most study of chatroom
interactions would be difficult at best.
Herring's (2001) guidelines stem from the general concerns of
discourse analysis where, among other aspects, attention is given to the
form of the communicative exchange rather than the content. She points out
that discourse analysis does not generally require IRB approval, and the
restrictive guidelines proposed by Bruckman would unduly restrict the work
permissible from the discourse analysis approach.
Cases of Ethical Issues and Internet Research
Several cases of ethical issues are to be presented in this paper
and a few are to be prepared for consideration during the discussion
period. One of these cases is noted below to provide an illustration of
what is to be expected.
Big Brother Discussion List and Chatroom
A discussion list is maintained and a chatroom facilitated on a web
site associated with the television program Big Brother (a version of
'prison' television with emphasis on personal interactions of ordinary
people in a confined 'real life' situation, often coupled to forms of
audience reaction and participation). Members of a research team are
generally interested in the forms of communicative interaction in which
television program viewers engage when they visit the web site affiliated
to the program. Some are also interested in aspects of personal identity
and behavior that are manifested during site interactions, and particularly
the relation to the identities of persons in the television program. Some
of the ethical questions that can be posed about this study include:
* Must permission be requested (and, if so, by whom) before this
study is undertaken?
* If permission is acquired from, say, the site web master, must
participants in a specific discussion list or chatroom also be informed; if
so, how frequently and in what manner?
* Can exchanges between participants in a chatroom be quoted
verbatim without permission from those participants?
* Can the (fictive) names of chatroom figures be mentioned in the
* If there is reason to believe that some of the participants are
young children (e.g., through style of discourse or through other
indicators of age), is parental consent required before data is collected
on these subjects? References
AoIR (Association of Internet Researchers) (2001). AOIR ethics
working committee - a preliminary report.
Bruckman, A. (2001). Ethical guidelines for research online; a
strict interpretation. http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/ethics/
Frankel, M.S. & Siang, Sanyin (1999). Ethical and legal aspects of
human subjects research on the Internet. Report, American Association for
the Advancement of Science.
Herring, S. (2001). Ethical challenges to doing research on the
Internet: the CMDA perspective. Presentation, conference of Association of
Internet Researchers, Minneapolis.
Markham, A.N. (1998). Life online; researching real experience in
virtual space. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.
Sharf, B.F. (1999). Beyond netiquette: the ethics of doing
naturalistic discourse research on the Internet. In S. Jones (ed.), Doing
Internet research: critical issues and methods for examining the Net, pp.
243-256. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
to Virtual Methods seminar programme
<http://www.soc.surrey.ac.uk>Department of Sociology
<http://www.surrey.ac.uk>University of Surrey Guildford Surrey GU2 7XH Tel:
+44 (0)1483 686986 Fax: +44 (0)1483 689551 Email:
Contents last updated: 9 June 2004
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