[Air-l] ethics of 'net discourse research

Charles Ess cmess at lib.drury.edu
Sat May 4 05:28:45 PDT 2002

Funny you should ask...

The aoir ethics working committee has been, well, working on this for a
while.  Our preliminary report from last October is online:
<aoir.org/reports/ethics.html> and includes a number of resources we've
found valuable. 
We're currently developing and reviewing a second document, designed less as
a list of guidelines and more as a kind of rubric for what questions should
researchers and relevant oversight bodies (in the U.S., IRBs) ask about such
research, and the ethical issues specific examples entail.  With any luck
(it's finals week after all), I hope to circulate a revised version of that
document to the aoir list in the next week or so for comment.

As Amy Bruckman, one of our committee members has pointed out, some of our
discussion rehearses issues and responses elaborated in a special issue of
_The Information Society_, Vol. 12 (1996).  Several articles there are very
much worth your attention, including
Storm A. King, "Researching Internet Communities: Proposed Ethical
Guidelines for the Reporting of Results," (pp. 119-127)
(especially useful for connecting together the APA ethical guidelines with
online research)
Elizabeth Reid, "Informed Consent in the Study of On-Line Communities: A
Reflection on the Effects of Computer-Mediated Social Research" (pp.
(There are others; this is not meant to be an exclusive list, but only
reflects what I've managed to read so far.)

As well:
Lynne Schrum, "Ethical Research in the Information Age: Beginning the
Dialog," _Computers in Human Behavior_, Vol. 13 (2), pp. 117-125.
is really excellent for its discussion of the qualitative research tradition
and its connecting extant guidelines with research on listservs. Schrum
develops a list of ten guidelines that stress that the authors of listserv
postings are the owners of that material; e-mail should be treated as
private correspondence "that is not to be forwarded, shared, or used as
research data unless express permission is given"; and she likewise stresses
the importance of informed consent and protecting the confidentiality of
listserv members.
This is important, and, in a way, quite standard.  One of the central
debates, of course, is whether - and if so, how far - one can ethically
override such subject protections,
- either in the name of the quality of the research (informing subjects of
the research, as King points out, can drastically interrupt precisely the
communication and interaction processes one wants to study)
and/or in the name of greater benefits to be acquired through the research
(the utilitarian or cost-benefit consideration).

This is a crucial debate between U.S.-based researchers - see, for example,
Amy Bruckman's guidelines at
Amy takes a more deontological approach (i.e., one less inclined to override
subjects' protections in the name of research goals and its ostensible
benefits).  Many other researchers - including Susan Herring - take the more
utilitarian approach.
This was debated quite powerfully at aoir 2.0 as part of a panel on research
ethics, and our very own Nickolas Jankowski, with his colleague Martine van
Selm, has written up a nice overview of the aoir report and the debate -
"Research Ethics in a Virtual World: Some Guidelines and Illustrations"

The debate is also important because it reflects cross-cultural differences:
roughly (_very_ roughly!) the U.S. tends to accept utilitarian
considerations more readily than the extant European guidelines for privacy
and data protection would allow.

FWIW: our report will not endorse one approach over another - but emphasize
the importance of each as part of a spectrum of ethical decision-making
approaches that need to be brought to bear on specific issues raised by
online research.  This ethical pluralism hopes to respect the integrity and
authority of national traditions and ethical orientations - while not
melting into simple ethical relativism that would "let anything go."

Of course, I'd be delighted to see whatever list of additional resources
your query also turns up!

Cheers and best wishes,

Charles Ess
Director, Interdisciplinary Studies Center
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave.                          Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO  65802  USA            FAX: 417-873-7435
Home page:  http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html
Co-chair, CATaC 2002: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/~sudweeks/catac02/

Education is what is left over after you've forgotten everything that you've
learned.  (source unknown)

> From: david_eddy_spicer at harvard.edu
> Reply-To: air-l at aoir.org
> Date: Fri, 3 May 2002 13:52:47 -0400
> To: air-l at aoir.org
> Subject: [Air-l] ethics of 'net discourse research
> I'm new to the list, and I'm sure this question has come up before. I'm
> interested in articles that elaborate ethical guidelines for doing
> naturalistic studies of online discussions.
> The one very helpful piece I've found so far is Barbara Sharf's chapter in
> _Internet Research_: "Beyond netiquette: the ethics of doing naturalistic
> discourse research on the internet". What other sources would you
> recommend, either in print or on the web?
> Please reply to me directly at the address below. I'll compile whatever
> information I get and post it back to the list.
> My thanks,
> David
> david_eddy_spicer at harvard.edu
> Doctoral Candidate
> Harvard Graduate School of Education
> Cambridge, Mass.
> _______________________________________________
> Air-l mailing list
> Air-l at aoir.org
> http://www.aoir.org/mailman/listinfo/air-l

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