Is it ethically OK to use internet sources as data for qualitative studies?

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Well it’s the last of the blogs. Over the past few weeks I have read quite a few blogs on this topic of whether it is ok to use the internet as a source of data for qualitative research. These blogs have presented a great insight to the topic and their opinions on what they think and I just wanted to do some more searching and have a chance to express my opinion on the topic.

            The internet has become so widely used in many aspects of life: socially and professionally. Now even research has resorted to the use of the internet such as questionnaires and surveys. The internet allows people to express their opinions (just as we are doing with our blogs) and therefore can be a rich source of data. There are several different ‘communities’ online which allow people to discuss with others without necessarily being recognised. An internet community refers to mailing lists, chat rooms, newsgroup, and also online discussion boards. I think before we consider if it is ethically ok to use the internet for qualitative research we should identify what qualitative research is. Qualitative research aims to listen to voice of participants: their worries and thoughts. Qualitative research produces rich data which is a great benefit of this type of research.

            Internet research is becoming more widely used today. There are three main types of internet research methods. The first method is passive analysis. In this method the researcher does not involve themselves and just studies the patterns of the websites. The second method is active analysis. In this method researchers participate in communications to determine the accuracy of responses. However the researcher does not say they are a researcher. In the third method the researcher identifies themselves as a researcher. This method can be used in the form of a semi structured interview.

But the main question is: is it ethically ok to use internet sources as data for qualitative studies? Well this is a difficult question and there are a great of deal of different opinions on this topic. Some of the main ethical aspects to consider with internet research are informed consent, privacy and confidentiality. These are key ethical issues in any type of research but with internet research it can get a bit complicated. Firstly it is difficult to distinguish between private internet communities and public ones. This is important as if you wanted to observe in a public context you would not need to obtain consent from participants, whereas in a private context consent is required. Like I said it is difficult to distinguish between private and public communities. An internet community is considered private if a subscription or a form of registration is required to enter the community (e.g. chat room or mailing list) and subscribers are not going to expect for their conversations/discussions to be observed. Also the number of users of the community helps to determine if the community is private. However, this can be nearly impossible to determine. So as you can see the question which you first thought was simple isn’t at all.

So when we have decided whether consent is needed or not then how do we get it? Is it as simple as just asking the participants for their permission to use their data or participate? Well let’s think to the example of mailing lists. There are two possibilities how to get consent for mailing lists. You could either send an email to every participant and describe the experiment/observation to them and give them the opportunity to withdraw themselves. However this can be intrusive and is only possible if new members can be identified as a new member. Therefore there needs to be a way of distinguishing between old and new members. Also this method could possibly influence future communication as you have explained what you will be observing so they may react in what they think is a desirable way. Another way to obtain consent for mailing lists is to ask after observing whether the participants wants their posts/data to be used and they can withdraw in this way. This method is less intrusive and the researchers can ensure messages are interpreted correctly as they haven’t identified themselves as such. However, this method can be time consuming but then again so is most qualitative research.

As I mentioned previously, privacy and confidentiality is a must in all research (quantitative and qualitative). This is incredibly important, especially in internet research as people can be traced online. Researchers need to specify (when asking for consent) if they will be using exact quotes from participants as quotes can be searched online and people may possibly be able to identify the participant. This may be one of the hardest rules to keep as there are so many ways to search for things and people could be identified. This principle combines with protection of participants as if a researcher does not keep them completely confidential then they may be identified which may potentially bring harm to the participant.

So as you can tell there are a lot of ethics to consider with any type of research but it can get complicated with internet research. I personally think that it is fine to conduct research on the internet as long as these ethics and precautions are taken seriously. I think people can benefit from this research as by using the internet you can look at a lot more in less time. Also it is called the world wide web for a reason: because the whole world can access it. Therefore more cultures can be observed by using the internet. Also internet research is cheaper because the participants are already using the internet; they are not having to be brought to a lab to be tested which can cost large amounts.

One of the arguments I have heard is that this is research going too far but are these just modified techniques based on existing ones? For example customer surveys used to be done in person but now they are either done online or by email which saves the money of someone stood at a shop entrance for hours and hours waiting for people to participate. Whereas if they are done by email the company can send a mass email to all their registered customers and wait for a reply. This is cheaper and also takes less time. This isn’t a new method it is just a revised method of an older one. A ‘new’, alternative to the survey method is ‘structured observation’. Structured observation refers to observations done by a person filling out a questionnaire which has been approved and validated by experts. It is said that this method may be an appropriate substitute for a survey. This does not mean that old methods will become forgotten and not used just that there are alternatives which work better in certain situations.

After looking up research on this topic I have decided that research on the internet can be beneficial and save time. It can also bring the opportunity for approaching people in other countries and including them in research in this country. I think the internet can be an amazing aid in the world today however there is the danger of becoming reliant on the internet and forgetting where we came from and forgetting the traditional methods of research. After all these methods have brought us some incredible research and some research cannot be conducted online. For qualitative research I feel the internet can be beneficial as participants don’t even have to show their face to the experimenter saving them embarrassment or fear of expressing their true feelings which they may not express in a face to face context. I think this is a topic that everyone has to think about and really consider the advantages and disadvantages before making a clear cut decision.

If anyone is interested on reading up any more information here are some of the websites I used and some that I found interesting:

http://www.bmj.com/content/323/7321/1103.full

www.codata.org/06conf/presentations/…/NivAhituv&YaelSteimberg… (this is the web address that was associated with a presentation I looked at but I don’t think it takes you directly to the presentation so the next link is the google link and I found this presentation from that page…)

http://www.google.co.uk/#hl=en&sclient=psy-ab&q=internet+research+methods&oq=internet+research+&aq=1&aqi=g4&aqi=&qs_l=serp.3.1.0l4.0I0I1I328I0I0I0I0I0I0I0I0II0I0.frgld.&pbx=1&bav=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&fp=6b9d0de2ab56a6ef&biw=1080&bih=467 (google link to powerpoint I used for information on this blog. Titled “[PPT] The impact of the internet of research methods:…”)

http://www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/ethics_cap_full.html

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2 responses »

  1. Hey, good blog, I liked your arguments and you made good points. Personally I think that the internet can be a very effective tool for research, but it has limits. I think that the only way it should be used is by contacting people on it and then sending questionairres or whatever you’re using for the study. I think it’s ethically wrong to use what people write without asking them. However, if there is a community online that is very close to what the researcher needs, they could use the message board or chat room to contact them and ask them to participate in their study.

  2. Pingback: Comments!! « Numbers and Psychology

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