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

Joe Walther walthj at rpi.edu
Thu Jun 6 09:43:21 PDT 2002

Interesting discussion about research ethics, and I appreciate Jim Hudson's
perspective from the IRB point of view.  My interpretation of the Code of
Federal Regulations (see
http://ohrp.osophs.dhhs.gov/humansubjects/guidance/45cfr46.htm) differs
from Jim's somewhat, but it does still not allow for deceptive
interviewing.  The difference of opinion pertains to the use of existing
records, which some subscribers have suggested as an alternative

Jim suggests that existing records are fair game "IF" contributors to those
records remain anonymous.  Not quite, as I see it--it's an OR not an IF:
Exempt from IRB oversight because it is not human subjects research is...

"(4) Research involving the collection or study of existing data,
documents, records, pathological specimens, or diagnostic specimens, if
these sources are publicly available or if the information is recorded by
the investigator in such a manner that subjects cannot be identified,
directly or through identifiers linked to the subjects."

Public availability makes such records fair game.  

Moreover, the analysis of these documents, with authors' identities intact,
does not necessarily constitute information that is recorded BY THE
INVESTIGATOR in such a manner.  So it is not human subjects research, as
long as the investigator keeps his or her virtual mouth shut. No consent is

As soon as one interacts with a poster, that is human subjects research.
And that is a different story.

A lot of people do not like this.  This is not an ethics claim, but an
interpretation of Code.

Copyright issues: Academics have some fair use provisions. See David
Jacobson (1999). Doing research in cyberspace. Field Methods, 11, 127-145.
Better still: don't quote at length and this is not an issue.

How do ethnographers deal with this when the Internet has nothing to do
with it?  (Seriously asking.)

--Joe Walther

More information about the Air-L mailing list