Slippery Ethics

When I first decided to use data from a ‘public’ online forum, I felt rather smug. ‘This will be easy!’ I thought. The data is already there, so I won’t need to conduct lengthy interviews or chase people up for questionnaires, more data passes through the Mumsnet ‘talk’ forum in a day that I could ever possibly need, and there would be no ethical issues! People are posting publicly… anyone can access the forum… so there’s not problem with me using it, I won’t even need permission!

Cue slightly older me tutting and shaking her head at younger me’s naivety.

Don’t get me wrong. Using online data has proved to be extremely useful, and I stand by my initial prediction that mining online data would be easier than gathering it myself. But no ethical issues? Wrong. Ethical issues in online research are more problematic than I ever imagined, and what is and isn’t ethical is a hot topic of discussion and debate amongst social scientists in particular. In the past few months I’ve been tying myself in knots in my quest to conduct ‘ethical’ research – and not just research that will get me past the University’s ethical board, but research I am happy to conduct.

It was the outrage caused by facebook’s recently published research which spurred me on to write about the ethics of online research this week. My face fell when this article popped up in my news feed, betraying my unease and indecision about whether my research can truly be considered ‘ethical’. The main issues raised in this article are the covert nature of the research (no one knew they were participating in a study) and the lack of informed consent in what is essentially an experiment designed to manipulate users’ emotions. The facebook research scandal has made me question afresh whether my decision not to gain the informed consent of my unsuspecting online participants is the right thing to do. One thing I’m certainly not doing is manipulating my research subjects in any way, but I still wonder how I would feel if information I shared online, albeit publicly, was used without my knowledge for a purpose I never imagined.

Of course, I’m not naïve enough to think that this doesn’t happen all the time. This is clear from the amount of spam email and annoying phone calls I receive daily, and the constant barrage of online advertising that seems perfectly tailored to my needs. But I do believe that as a social scientist I have a responsibility to adhere to the highest ethical standards; to uphold the values I would like to see mirrored in the rest of society.

I’ll be presenting a poster at the 47th BAAL AGM on this topic, with the title ‘Dilemmas in Cyberspace: Exploring the Ethics of Linguistic Research Online’. I’d be most interested in your thoughts!

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