[Air-l] Science News Online: The Social Net

Jim Hudson jhudson at cc.gatech.edu
Wed Jun 5 14:38:12 PDT 2002

Hi all!

Before tossing in my opinions, let me give you a little bit of my
background since it does make a difference here.  I'm a grad student
doing research with Amy Bruckman (who helped draft the AoIR guidelines,
AAAS guidelines, forthcoming APA guidelines, etc.).  I'm also a member
of Georgia Tech's IRB, however.  So, I've had that formal training and
often approach things from that perspective.  Nonetheless, I'll say the
standard disclaimer that these are all my opinions and my interpretation
of the ethics and regulation of the situation.

That said, this is all really nasty and complicated.  Consider the case
of using the archived messages from a discussion group.  On one hand,
Jenny makes a nice point about work being exempt if the subjects remain
anonymous.  Unfortunately, that's a really big "if".  In all likelihood,
the person doing this research would want to quote the messages to make
some of the points.  Most likely, a Google search on the quote would
pull up the archive.  Therefore, anonymity cannot be taken for granted
even if the researcher actively changes the names in written accounts.

Now, even if that work was exempted from IRB oversight, that does not
exempt the researchers from requirements of consent.  My filing with the
IRB in the first place, the researcher acknowledges that this is human
subjects research.  And, it does in fact fit the formal definition of
human subjects research (gathering personally identifiable information).
So, we have to get consent from people in the archive before we use
their data.  By definition, this means that our hypothetical researcher
must get consent from everyone who's data they use.  The researcher is
not excused if they cannot reach someone because the email address was
shut off years ago.  

But, there's another side to that story.  What about the take that the
archive is actually an archive of copyrighted work?  In this case, we
don't need consent, but we, instead, have to actively cite all of the
messages.  If we are wanting to say critical things or talk about
sensitive topics, this may not be appropriate.  As for the answer, I
don't know.  I usually try to think about it on a case by case basis.
Nonetheless, this is a really difficult issue that Amy has explored in
more detail in a journal article she is working on.

I also want to add a little to Nancy's point about the greater good.
She asks the question:  "Is the knowledge gain really going to outweigh
potential damage done to those studied?"  As an IRB member, this is the
first question that I ask about any study I see.  Sometimes, research
holds the potential to harm subjects, but the knowledge gain justifies
the potential harm.  I would just clarify, however, that asking this
question focuses attention on both the question the researcher is trying
to answer and their method.  If the research question justifies the
harm, but the method won't satisfactorily answer the question, maybe the
study shouldn't be done.

There's a second question, however.  Are the subjects aware of the risk
and voluntarily consenting to the study nonetheless?  Subjects have a
right to be fully informed in choosing whether or not to consent.  When
researchers do not answer this question, they run the risk of the
university not standing behind them.

So, when is consent not necessary?  Some research cannot be done if
subjects must consent.  In the US, consent can be waived by an IRB if
four conditions are met (45 cfr 46.116d): 
	1.	Research involves no more than minimal risk
	2. 	Waiving consent would not "adversely affect the rights
and welfare of the subjects"
	3.	"Research could not practicably be carried out without
the waiver"
	4.	Debriefing subjects afterwards, when appropriate.

It's been a while since I read the details of the Glaser case, so I
won't comment on whether or not he met these conditions and how ethical
his research was.  It's important to note, however, that the guidelines
for waiving consent are rather stringent.  Waiving documentation of
consent, however, is a different issue and is typically significantly

This leads to my response to Laura's question about some people
misinterpreting the "greater good."  Yes, researchers tend to see
anything they want to do as serving the greater good.  This is human
nature.  That is why these decisions need to be a result of an
interactive discussion between the researcher, the research community,
and the IRB.  Typically, IRBs are viewed as the enemy (and sometimes
they are).  Often, I believe this is because the IRBs simply are not
well informed on the issues surrounding every academic community.  This
can be overcome, however, through the type of discussion I'm advocating.

I think it's great to see this type of discussion on the aoir list.  I
know my response has been long winded, but I think this is a really
important issue that we need to actively consider as a community.  After
all, there are no easy answers here.


Jim Hudson              |  Ph.D. Student
College of Computing    |  jhudson at cc.gatech.edu
Georgia Tech            |  http://www.cc.gatech.edu/~jhudson
Atlanta, GA  30332-0280 |  Phone: 404-894-9761
                        |  Fax:   404-894-0673

-----Original Message-----
From: air-l-admin at aoir.org [mailto:air-l-admin at aoir.org] On Behalf Of
Jenny Stromer-Galley
Sent: Wednesday, June 05, 2002 4:19 PM
To: air-l at aoir.org
Subject: Re: [Air-l] Science News Online: The Social Net

Interesting question. My sense is that if a researcher is looking at an
archive of discussion, as long as the participants remain anonymous in
the research findings write-up, such analysis is fine and ethical. My
human subjects board would require me to file with them to notify them
that I was doing such archival work, but such research would be exempt
from any formal oversight by the human subjects board. 

----- Original Message ----- 
From: Kris Gowen 
To: air-l at aoir.org 
Sent: Wednesday, June 05, 2002 1:14 PM
Subject: RE: [Air-l] Science News Online: The Social Net

Would it be different, ethically, for a researcher to analyze archives
on a message board discussing the same topic?
L. Kris Gowen, PhD
Senior Research Associate
Foundation for Accountability
kgowen at facct.org

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