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

Posted: February 17, 2012 in Uncategorized

Hello everyone and how are you all this week?

Well this is the last blog before exam week so I shall wish you all luck in the forthcoming exams.

This week we shall be talking about whether or not it is ethically OK to use internet sources as data for qualitative research.

One of the problems faced today by modern qualitative researchers is whether or not it is ethically acceptable to use internet sources (such as blogs and Facebook) in their research. Some may even question why researchers bother to use the internet if it raises so many ethical issues.

The researchers who choose to use the internet in their research can face many many problems. One of the biggest debates and problems in this specific region of research is whether or not it is ethically appropriate to use material from internet resources without consent from the person who published the content. The reason that this can cause such a huge debate is because some researchers may believe that the internet is basically one giant public forum and anything that enters the interweb is up for grabs. The private and the public parts of the internet become blurred and it can be difficult to tell them apart. It can be difficult and time consuming for researchers to gain fully informed consent from the participant as it can be difficult finding out who someone really is on the internet and it can also be difficult trying to contact them. Even if contact is made, through e-mail for example, it can take days for some people to reply to e-mail or they may just think that it is spam.

Another issue that has been raised is the extent to which data should be disguised. Some claim that because there are vulnerable individuals using the internet, their involvement in the research should be disguised. On the other hand some researchers think that they should be given credit for what they have provided and that they should be mentioned in the research. So the issue is to what extent should material be disguised?

Some agencies are trying to make the boundaries of internet research clear once again. One of these agencies is the Panel on Research Ethics (PRE). This agency is trying to keep certain ethics policies alive and to keep them evolving so that  the can respond to new research developments.

For now that is all I am going to say on the issues of ethics and internet research. I know that there is so much more to be said on the matter, so please feel free to comment 🙂

Thank you for reading and until next time…

Good Bye 🙂

  1. Anonymous says:

    Hi PQ – another thorny topic !
    As an initial thought surely much depends on whether the data from the ‘net is being used as the subject of the research or is being quoted as supporting information for your own work.
    In the first case you would record the information and the source but report it as coming from ‘Subject P’ or some similar anonymising terminology.
    In the latter case you would need to cite the source in the normal way.
    Of course the other internet debate is how valid is much of the ‘stuff’ you find on there. is it real or is it the demented ravings of whoever. Well, you get the point – and I guess that is the world you psychologists have to live in !

  2. kennedy92 says:

    I think this is quite a difficult topic and from a small groups session last semester found it is an extremely controversial topic. I can see why researchers think about using the internet to get research as the world is becoming so techinical/electrical and computer based that I think soon it will be difficult to find other varied sources of data. I find it a really difficult topic to comment on as people should surely realise that anything they put on the internet can be accessed by anyone; whether they are scientific or not. For examples on chat sites people know that (even on the private ones) anyone can become a member and ‘chat’ or just sign in and watch the conversation unwind. I can see where you are coming from with the ethics of getting consent from the participants and this is ethically expected but you also mentioned that in many cases these people are difficult to trace and find their true identity so it is questionable whether it matters if you have their consent because they already have an internet identity and their real identity is hidden and difficult to trace so in this manner they are protected and kept confidential. I know this doesn’t cover the fact that they have not been asked if their data can be used but like I said before anyone can view this data online so why shouldn’t researchers be allowed to use it? I think it is important that people realise that anything they do on the internet can be viewed by someone else (whether it is their true identity or their internet identity) and therefore need to think carefully about what they want people to see/know about them and to remember that things that are posted on the internet (never mind how old you were when you did it) can be seen for years and years later. It is a really difficult topic and a brave one to write a blog on.

  3. stuffedwith cold says:

    Some very thoughtful comments.THe Internet is a superb resource and now we wonder how we ever managed without it BUT it can also be dangerous and very inaccurate. You are tapping into the best minds in the world but also potentially unstable and vulnerable minds. Who can tell which is which?! Itis – as you point out – an ethical minefield and in a blog you can only scratch the surface of the problems that can be encountered. Well done for raising so many pertinent and valuable points.

  4. hb90 says:

    Informative blog  . When using chat rooms and facebook and other similar sites to gain data from there is the problem of confidentiality. However, when signing up to these sites, often written in the terms and conditions, they do say that the information you put on the site is public. But a lot of individuals still fail to read the terms and conditions. I think the problem with some of these sites is that individuals want to show how they feel publically such a tweeting or writing status’s but don’t realise how many people can actually view their profiles. Some would argue that research taken from these individuals is therefore not unethical. They should have read the terms and conditions and if they don’t want people seeing this type of information that they write about themselves they should not have signed up to the site.
    Still I think it is a tough one and i did come across some websites that mentioned ethical ways to carry out internet research.

  5. felley says:

    Some interesting points! Although I think that information that a person puts on the internet should not be used without consent I can’t say i’m really surprised that it is to be honest! For a while I thought my profile on facebook was private but only recently I realised that although certain settings were private the rest was not and people could look through pictures and my wall posts to their hearts content. It took me a good couple of hours after reading about 50 answers on yahoo answers to find out how to set everything to private. This means that so much of what I posted over the past few years could have been used against my will and i’m sure that many others may be in this situation and not know it!
    Also, when browsing the internet not long ago, me and a couple of my friends came across this website:

    It turned out to be a pretty terrifying website and we found that all of our details including our current address, previous addresses, people in our household and property price could be found on this website. This information is accessible to anyone who uses the internet and statistics from it could definitely be used to gather informative data.

    In this day and age although there are many arguements beginning to formulate against the use of information off the internet it is infact very hard to track down who is doing it like you mentioned in your post. I think that even if laws were set in place that information could not be used against a persons will then it would definitely still occur. That’s one of the problems with the internet, unless major databases are shut down then it is almost impossible to stop something. Take for example the law on piracy involving music, many steps have been taken to try and prevent this however it still happens everyday!
    Really thought provoking post you have made, I enjoyed it 🙂

  6. psuc41 says:

    People may think that “knowledge is power,” or that information, the raw material of knowledge, is power. But the truth is that only some information is power: reliable information. Information serves as the basis for beliefs, decisions, choices, and understanding our world. If we make a decision based on wrong or unreliable information, we do not have power–we have defeat. If we eat something harmful that we believe to be safe, we can become ill; if we avoid something good that we believe to be harmful, we have needlessly restricted the enjoyment of our lives. The same thing applies to every decision to travel, purchase, or act, and every attempt to understand. Source Evaluation is an Art Source evaluation–the determination of information quality–is something of an art. That is, there is no single perfect indicator of reliability, truthfulness, or value. Instead, you must make an inference from a collection of clues or indicators, based on the use you plan to make of your source. If, for example, what you need is a reasoned argument, then a source with a clear, well-argued position can stand on its own, without the need for a prestigious author to support it. On the other hand, if you need a judgment to support (or rebut) some position, then that judgment will be strengthened if it comes from a respected source. If you want reliable facts, then using facts from a source that meets certain criteria of quality will help assure the probability that those facts are indeed reliable.

  7. Hi, the internet is so full of information it would be difficult to just disregard it as a potential source for research however there are of curse ethical considerations such as informed consent which you have mentioned. if i had to pick a side i would say that we shouldnt use the internet, but this is only because i think that people would be against it – say for example you were in a chat room and someone gathered information about the conversation you were having with your friend – all that personal information, jokes, where you are going to meet up, etc will all be on record
    An interesting blog 🙂

  8. psuaa6 says:

    It is a very sketchy topic, the internet publishes very inaccurate stuff, so when researchers are using it in their studies, how can they be sure it is all correct? Let’s take for example Wikipedia, anyone can update Wikipedia and of course they can update it with wrong information, I have had friends update Wikipedia just to prove an incorrect point, of course Wikipedia sorts out the information as to whether or not it is true and edits it eventually, but for that moment in time, it is live on the internet, an incorrect fact, for all naive people to believe. That is just one factor. Another factor being that vulnerable internet users publish information about themselves that may not wish to be seen, however their privacy settings are allowing the whole of the internet to see (error!). If researchers take this information to include in research, this is ethically wrong and concludes my point that the internet shouldn’t be used for qualitative studies.

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