Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Online Research: The Other Fifty Shades of Gray

If there was one thing made clear about online research this week, it was that it's still a gray area that is open to many interpretations and context-dependent decisions. While the Association of Internet Researchers has attempted to offer some guidance about ethical research practices, even those are described in shades of gray--acknowledging that there are still as many questions as answers. The three fundamental tensions center on human subjects, texts/data vs. people, and public vs. private spaces.

Maybe I've become too cynical about Internet privacy after all of the Wikileaks drama and other scandals in the last few years, but I have no real expectation of privacy on the Internet anymore. I know that I've probably signed away rights on all sorts of sites by agreeing to TOU policies that were too long for me to take the time to read. Amazon and countless other sellers track my every shopping query, and they remind me of such as they post ads of the specific products I've perused to my Facebook sidebars. Emails, browsing histories, IP addresses -- everything can be tracked, so I'm not terribly swayed by privacy concerns on Internet research. What does resonate with me, however, is the argument from the Swedish Research Council in the Elm chapter that "People who participate in research must not be harmed, either physically or mentally, and they must not be humiliated or offended" (2009, p. 84). For me, this is the fundamental issue that is critical to my integrity as a researcher. I'm not overly concerned about rules about public/private spheres because there is such a blur between those. But I do care what my research subjects think about how I treat them. I would not want to harm, humiliate, or offend the people who are important to my research interests, nor would I want to jeopardize my future relationships with them in any way. I recognize that my research areas are pretty tame, so there's little risk of harming others. But there are so many consequences that may be unpredictable, and it's wise to be thoughtful throughout the process, not just when getting IRB approval. It therefore makes sense that the AoIR guidelines would be rather nebulous.

One thing that stood out to me in the readings this week was the idea that there is not really an international consensus on ethical practices for Internet research--particularly in regards to the definition of human subjects. While the AoIR guidelines are a good starting point for a framework, interpretation and application may vary from country-to-country and probably university-to-university as well. Given these variations, I'm curious what that means for Internet research. Are there some countries or universities that are researcher "hot spots" where online researchers want to go? Or are there some that are shunned because they're too strict or too loose with their research requirements? It seems like the uneven approaches could create some interesting dynamics among scholars.

I was also very interested in reading the Salmons chapters because I plan to do most of my dissertation interviews online. A couple of questions I hope she can address:

1) What are some strategies and challenges with recruiting participants in online research?
2) Are there any particular tools that are especially good for online qualitative interviews?

1 comment:

  1. Right - I think the lack of international consensus is interesting too - not just when it comes to online research but around research ethics in general! I like the quote that you pulled out from Elm, and while I am all for not humiliating people, I am not as sure about "offending" participants - in that I'm not sure that the purpose of research is to tell people stuff that makes them happy. As I think about it, I think it really depends on what research tradition you are coming from and what the purpose of your research is.