[Air-l] ethical issues in chat room research

Charles Ess cmess at drury.edu
Sun Jun 12 12:29:48 PDT 2005

O.k., let's try this again..

My apologies for not including the ULR for the AoIR ethical guidelines in my
previous response.  The ethics document is linked from the home page of
AoIR, and can be directly accessed at
In the following, I attempt to respond to these excellent questions both by
way of the AoIR guidelines (2002) as well as to more recent work in Internet
Research Ethics.  As Dan Burk has recently noted, I'm hoping to update these
guidelines in the coming year or two - the following includes notes in those
Please also note that the following contains copyrighted material from
forthcoming articles, and should thus not be cited, copied, or distributed
without permission.
> <begin pasted section>
> My research involves transnational ethnic identity formation through the
> discursive interactions over the internet.
> What is the standard related to quoting people in a
> chatroom or in a discussion list on the internet?
There is no generic standard (to my knowledge).  As the questions raised in
the AoIR guidelines try to make clear, much depends on the particularities
of the chatroom, its participants, and the nature of the research - along
with extant law (which varies from country to country, of course) regarding
copyright and data privacy.

For example, the guidelines raise a first question about venue, including:
What ethical expectations are established by the venue?
For example:
Is there is a posted site policy that establishes specific expectations ­
e.g., a statement notifying users that the site is public, the possible
technical limits to privacy in specific areas or domains, etc.

In general - researchers are well advised to follow the policy and
expectations raised by the site, for two sorts of reasons:
1) the expectations of the participants is a primary moral guideline -
"respect" in some form or another is pretty close to a cultural universal,
most people expect it in some form or another, and many (especially Western
deontological) ethical systems tend to take respect for a person and  thus
for his/her expectations as a kind moral north star, around which much else
2) As plenty of researchers have learned to their chagrin and dismay, _not_
respecting basic Human Subjects protections (rights to privacy, anonymity,
confidentiality, informed consent) - whether or not these are explicitly
listed as conditions for entering in a chat room - has backfired powerfully
and negatively on the research community.  "We're not your f***in' guinea
pigs!" about covers it ... - for documentation of this, see especially
Bruckman, Amy and James Hudson. 2004. Go Away: Participant Objections to
Being Studied and the Ethics of Chatroom Research, The Information Society
20 (2: April), 127-139.
Generally, in the absence of an explicit statement regarding privacy
expectations, the larger the chatroom, the more likely people recognize its
public character and so have less expectations of privacy.
Finally, quoting directly from a chatroom can run afoul not only of the
privacy policy and/or expectations of the participants - but if someone
makes personal information available online, at least within the E.U. and
those countries (e.g., Denmark and Norway) whose data privacy protection
laws are built on (and are sometimes more stringent than) the E.U. laws, in
theory that information cannot be transmitted (e.g., from one researcher to
another, much less show up in a publication accessible to a broad public)
without explicit consent from its owner.
(This is a particularly nasty problem for U.S.-based researchers, less so
for Canadians, whose data privacy laws under PIPEDA, fall somewhere between
a great laxity (US) and EU stringency - EU law prohibits transmission of
personal information to countries with less stringent data privacy
protection, which includes first of all the U.S.  I'm not aware of the fine
details regarding the Canadian situation - except enough to say that it also
varies somewhat from province to province.)

A second question:  what is the nature of the discourse?
Roughly, if the discussion is general and more impersonal, the less need for
informed consent, etc.  As the discussion moves and more not only into the
private and particular - e.g., with issues regarding religious / political
belief, sexuality, health condition and history - the potential for harm
resulting to a person by the publication of that information goes up
enormously, as does the obligation of the researcher to protect that person
from harm.  

Offhand, my guess is that interesting material relevant to identity building
is likely to include personal information - hence to be treated with care.

Disciplinary -
Unfortunately, I can't tell from the description of the research what
discipline(s) and methodology/ies are to be used here -
BUT there are significant differences between how different disciplines
respond to these issues - along with further differences entailed by
different methodological approaches.
Perhaps most broadly, as the AoIR Guidelines note, a basic starting point is
whether your approach is more rooted in the social sciences (which tend to
follow medical models of Human Subjects Protections - see
Kraut, R., Olson, J., Banaji, M., Bruckman, A., Cohen, J., & Couper, M.
(2004). Psychological research online: Report of the scientific affairs¹
advisory group on the conduct of research on the Internet. American
Psychologist, 59 (2), 105-117.)
and/or in humanities (art history, literary analyses, etc.) which tend to
see posters more as authors whose - subject to copyright requirements -
_want_ their texts and identity known.

As Susan Herring has cogently argued, for Computer-mediated Discourse
Analysis, exact quotes are necessary - these are the "data" that
researchers, especially following a more classical model of science, must
present to their colleagues for corroboration / criticism.  But this, of
course, is most risky - especially other participants may easily figure out
the source / identity of the quote.  And if the discussion material is
sensitive ... see above.
Participant-observation methodologies lead to their own set of ethical
issues.  Frequently, participant-observer ethnographers have argued that
much of their ability to gather useful data and observations depends on
developing a strong relationship of familiarity and trust with their
informants.  Especially under these conditions, safe-guarding personal -
especially potentially damaging - information is an especially strong
Katherine M. Clegg Smith, for example, asks whether or not a researcher
³lurking² (i.e., unannounced and unidentified) in a listserv is more akin to
a researcher taking notes on a public bench vs. doing so while hiding in a
bush? (2004, 230f.) She initially thought that her participant observation
approach ­ at least in relation to a public list whose introductory message
to new members emphasizes that the list is public and all messages are
archived ­ meant that she was not required to announce her ³listening² to
postings; nor did she request informed consent (2004, 231-235). But in
confronting the question as to how to include text as data in her research
publication, she wrestled with whether to treat posters of text as subjects
whose anonymity and confidentiality must be protected, and/or as authors who
would want credit for their work ­ choosing, in the end, to keep them
anonymous (2004, 230-235; see also Svenningson 2001, Bromseth 2002, Markham

[Bromseth, Janne C. H. 2002. Public places ­ public activities?
Methodological approaches and ethical dilemmas in research on
computer-mediated communication contexts.  In Andrew Morrison (ed.),
Researching ICTs in Context, 33-61. Inter/Media Report 3/2002. Oslo:
University of Oslo.  Available online:
Markham, Annette. 2004.  Representation in Online Ethnographies: A Matter of
Context Sensitivity. In Johns, Mark D., Shing-ling Sarina Chen, and G. Jon
Hall (eds.), Online Social Research: Methods, Issues, and Ethics, 141-155.
New York: Peter Lang.
Smith, Katherine M. Clegg. 2004. ³Electronic Eavesdropping²: The Ethical
Issues Involved in Conducting a Virtual Ethnography.  In Johns, Mark D.,
Shing-ling Sarina Chen, and G. Jon Hall (eds.), Online Social Research:
Methods, Issues, and Ethics, 223-238. New York: Peter Lang.
Sveningsson, Malin. 2001. Creating a Sense of Community: Experiences from a
Swedish Web Chat (dissertation). The Tema Institute ­ Department of
Communication Studies.  Linköping University. Linköping, Sweden.]
(Ethical note: in my reading and conversations, I frequently encounter a
kind of 'Golden Rule' approach among participant-observation researchers -
most simply, whether stated explicitly or not, their reflection frequently
includes a perspective-taking question, "how would I feel if a researcher
treated my personal information in this sort of way?"
This approach further often includes explicit commitment to feminist
principles, e.g. Olivero, Nadia and Peter Lunt. 2004. When the Ethic is
Functional to the Method: The Case of E-Mail Qualitative Interviews.  In
Elizabeth Buchanan (ed.), Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and
Controversies, 101-113.  Hershey, Pennsylvania: Information Science.
Along these lines, Mary Walstrom (2004) develops a feminist, communitarian
ethic in conjunction with participant-observation and discourse analysis
research, specifically by way of appeal to Bakhtin ­ as have G. John Hall,
Douglas Frederick, and Mark D. Johns (2004).
[Walstrom, Mary. 2004. Ethics and Engagement in Communication Scholarship:
Analyzing Public, Online Support Groups as
Researcher/Participant-Experiencer.  In Buchanan (ed.), 174-202.
Hall, G. Jon, Douglas Frederick, Mark D. Johns. 2004. ³NEED HELP ASAP!!!²: A
Feminist Communitarian Approach to Online Research Ethics.  In Johns, Mark
D., Shing-ling Sarina Chen, and G. Jon Hall (eds.), Online Social Research:
Methods, Issues, and Ethics, 239-252. New York: Peter Lang.]

I hope these general comments may be useful in framing responses to the
questions - as well as providing the researcher, in discussions with the
REB, with pertinent examples and instances drawn from the rapidly growing
literature on Internet Research Ethics.

As to the remaining questions:

> When you become a
> member of
> the list should you identify yourself as an observer of the list?
Depends on policy, expectations, discipline, and research design.  Some
forms of _not_ identifying oneself as a researcher may be justified -
usually if (a) the deception is essential to research design, (b)
participants will eventually be debriefed as to the true intention of the
exchange, and (c) risks of harm (including, in my view, harm to future
researchers should unhappiness over such deception result in increasingly
unwillingness among people to trust and cooperate with researchers) as a
result of the deception are minimal.

> you
> ask for informed consent of the people with a letter if you are quoting,
> or
> paraphrasing people?
In general, if informed consent is mandated, the best practice seems to be
letters (i.e., paper) rather than email.  For some excellent examples of
such requests, see those provided by Leslie Regan Shade (which passed muster
with _her_ REB) in the appendix of the AoIR guidelines.

There is also a range of possibilities here, e.g., as helpfully delineated
by Lawson:
(1) consent to having their nickname and communicative text used for data
analysis only (no publication of name or text);
(2) consent to having either their nickname or text published in an academic
work, but never together (i.e., no identifiers);
(3) consent to having either their nickname or text published in an academic
work, but never together (i.e., no identifiers) and providing they get to
see the ³write up² prior to publication;
(4) consent to having both their nickname and text published in academic
work, thereby being credited as the authors of their own words or
(5) consent to having both their nickname and text published in academic
work, thereby being credited as the authors of their own words, providing
they get to see the ³write up² prior to publication. The last two options
deal directly with the issue of CMC copyright. (2004, 93)

[Lawson, Danielle. 2004.  Blurring the Boundaries: Ethical Considerations
for Online Research using Synchronous CMC Forums.  In Buchanan (2004),

> Or are these chat or discussion environments are
> considered public billboards and people should be aware that they can be
> quoted when writing to those places?
See the above comments about policy statements (or lack thereof),
expectations, and Smith's analysis/example.

> Is it ok to quote people or
> paraphrase
> people by using (double)pseudonyms so that they cannot be easily
> identifiable? 
Depends ...
Brenda Danet argues _against_ using pseudonyms for pseudonyms, because in
her research, the identity of the poster, as a kind of performer, was
critical to understanding identity, character, relationships, etc.

[Danet, Brenda. 2002. Studies of Cyberpl at y: Ethical and Methodological
Aspects. <http://atar.mscc.huji.ac.il/~msdanet/papers/ethics2.pdf>]

But generally, especially if protecting identity and confidentiality is high
on the ethical list for one or more of the reasons discussed above - e.g.,
the comments are about sensitive/personal matters, revelation of which could
lead to considerable harm for the poster and/or his/her web of
relationships, etc.; nothing in the methodology requires exact quotes, etc.
- paraphrase and pseudonyms are in order.
> <end pasted section>

I hope these responses make clear a first point made in the guidelines -
here, as elsewhere in ethics, there are no moral algorithms or recipes.  The
best we can do - whether here or in our ethical lives more broadly - is
develop such guidelines, seek to apply them reflectively and responsibly,
and refine them in light of our new experiences and insights as we go along.
This entails _judgment_ and discourse, first of all.
I hope this helps with both.

As always, comments and suggestions for expansion, revision, improvement,
etc., are welcome, precisely in the name of dialogue - especially from AoIR
members whose own research and reflection, as in the development of the
original guidelines, is so extraordinarily rich and valuable.

Indeed, it would be very helpful to know if these comments and suggestions
help in this particular case - insofar as yes, how so, and insofar as no,
why not (i.e., what are we missing as far as issues raised by an REB that we
should address)?

In any event, good luck, and cheers,

Charles Ess

Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
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: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/catac/

Professor II, Globalization and Applied Ethics Programmes
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
NO-7491 Trondheim, Norway

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

More information about the Air-L mailing list