Dilemmas in Cyberspace

Last week I presented my poster ‘Dilemmas in Cyberspace: Exploring the Ethics of Linguistic Research Online’ at the 47th annual meeting of the British Association for Applied Linguistics (BAAL).

Going to this conference was one of the most positive and enjoyable things I’ve done as a researcher so far and I think that had a lot to do with presenting an accessible poster that enabled me to talk to a wide range of scholars with shared interests. BAAL were keen to raise the profile of posters at this conference, and I can see why. Delivering a poster was an effective way for me to get a range of perspectives on the notoriously problematic topic of ethics.

When I explored the literature on ethics and online research, my overwhelming feeling was that there was significant ambiguity on the topic; much of the literature raised questions, rather than providing answers. There wasn’t a paper, book, or set of guidelines that told me how to conduct an ethical research project using my particular online data source. But my reading did provoke me to think about certain key issues in relation to my research context: the Mumsnet ‘talk’ forum (see below for key references).

 I decided to present a poster about the ethics of online research, then, not because I had firm conclusions to share about what makes online research ‘ethical’, but because I wanted to share my understanding of the key themes internet researchers needed to address, and open up a dialogue about these themes. I would say my main aim was to provoke and promote discussion and engagement on the topic of ethics and online research. I felt strongly, and still do, that the ethics of online research was something the research community needed to discuss, debate and share experiences about. In the fluid and diverse environment of internet research, I think the most up-to-date, current and relevant insights are to be found in getting out there and talking to other academics.

I think I met these aims and had many fascinating discussions with linguists working in a range of fields, with different perspectives on key issues. Agnieska Knas was concerned with the issue of anonymity: If we anonymise online identities, she wondered, what else do we have to anonymise? What information has the potential to reveal internet users’ identities? In her research, she replaced ‘identifiers’ such as name places with generic terms such as [pub 1] for ‘The Black Horse’. Greg Myers and Caroline Tagg agreed that there are very specific ethical issues for linguistic researchers, who endeavour to remain faithful to participants’ original words, making quotes easily searchable online. Greg Myers had his own anecdote from an offline context about a participant taking issue with the ‘traceability’ of his identity in the data. We discussed the need to consider uncomfortable questions early on in the research process: how might participants react to research if they have never been consulted; if they weren’t even aware they had participated in a research project? What might the consequences of such a discovery be and how can we navigate these issues?

If you missed my presentation but would like to share insights and experiences about the ethics of online research, I’d love to hear from you!

my BAAL poster

Androutsopolous, J. (2008). Potentials and limitations of discourse-centred online ethnography. Language@Internet, 5, article 9. Retrieved from http://www.languageatinternet.org/articles/2008/1610

Barton, D., & Lee, C. (2013). Language Online: Investigating Digital Texts and Practices. London and New York: Routledge.

Ess, C. (2007). Internet research ethics. In A. Joinson, K. Mckenna, T. Postmes, & U.-D. Reips (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology (pp. 487–502). New York: Oxford University Press.

Krotoski, A. (2010). Introduction to the Special Issue: Research ethics in online communities. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3(1), 1–5.

Rosenberg, A. (2010). Virtual World Research Ethics and the Private/Public Distinction. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 3.

Sanders, T. (2005). Researching the Online Sex Work Community. In C. Hine(ed.)., Virtual Methods: Issues in Social Research on the Internet (pp 67-80). Oxford and New York: Sage

Sveningsson Elm, M. (2009). How do various notions of privacy influence decisions in qualitative internet research? In A. N. Markham & N. K. Baym (Eds.), Internet Inquiry: Conversations about Method (pp. 69–87). Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore and Washington DC: Sage.


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