Ethics, Privacy and Internet Research

A few days ago my first academic paper was published online. This article is probably the single thing that I’m most proud of to date, because it feels entirely my own. Of course, I draw on the work of others and have been supported by a wider research community, especially in the field of language and new media. But really closely scrutinising the ethics of my internet research was something I pursued very much independently of my supervisor and even against the advice of many senior colleagues. This post marks the occasion by detailing the key messages of this paper. They are:

  1. First, and most importantly, I think we need to put the core ethical principle do no harm right back at the forefront of discussions about ethics and internet research. The question ‘could this research cause harm?’ should come way before any questions about whether participants are ‘entitled’ to privacy or protection by researchers.
  2. Researchers need to careful about the assumption that if online research contexts are ‘public’, there aren’t really ethical issues to consider. We don’t all agree on what ‘public’ means, and we certainly don’t agree that because information is in a ‘public’ domain, anyone can do whatever they like with it.
  3. ‘Anonymity’ is a complex concept in internet research, where protecting participants’ anonymity may not just be about making sure they aren’t identifiable in the ‘real’ (offline) world. My own study shows that in spaces such as Mumsnet Talk, where contributors use pseudonyms, participants’ identities within the internet community of which they are a part may also need to be protected and anonymised.
  4. Finally, internet researchers need to be sensitive to the mechanisms by which internet users are able to achieve various levels of privacy and/or anonymity, even in highly accessible spaces. In this way, they can develop a better understanding of the norms of information sharing (Nissenbaum, 2010) within their research context and respond accordingly.

All of this requires a reflexive, context-sensitive approach from the researcher, and my paper also addresses the issue of how internet researchers, especially in the discipline of Applied Linguistics, can go about taking such a stance. I therefore also outline five specific methods that can be employed as part of what I call a reflexive-linguistic approach to internet research ethics:

  1. Systematic observation of/ engagement with the research site prior to and alongside data collection and analysis;
  2. Memo writing or other self-reflexive activities that will help you to engage with the process of data construction and to document your observations, personal responses and data selections in a critical way;
  3. Adopting a participant stance: by situating yourself within the research site, you can better engage with ethical issues from the perspective of those who are being researched.
  4. Making early and regular contact with gatekeepers such as site moderators or employed staff. These are the people who are likely to have the best understanding of your research site, how people engage with it and what potential there may be for your research to cause harm to its users. Talking to individual users is important too, where possible: it is very likely that people will have different perceptions of their engagement with internet sites and marginal views should not be ignored.
  5. Linguistic analysis. My understanding of the norms of information sharing, privacy and anonymity in Mumsnet Talk was greatly strengthened by my close linguistic analysis of participants’ interactions. For example, I found that some Mumsnet users achieve a degree of privacy when they construct and address specific in-groups of users, through their use of shared in-group knowledge and linguistic resources.

My full article, Identifying informational norms in Mumsnet Talk: A reflexive-linguistic approach to internet research ethics, is free to download for a limited time.


References and further reading:

boyd, danah. 2011. Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and

Implications. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites, 39-58. New York and London: Routledge.

Markham, Annette & Buchanan, Elizabeth. 2015. Internet Research: Ethical Concerns. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier.

Marwick, Alice & boyd, danah. 2014. Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media. New Media & Society 16(7). 1051-1067.

Nissenbaum, Helen. 2010. Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

All of the contributions to the forthcoming special issue of Applied Linguistics Review, most of which are currently available at

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2 Responses to Ethics, Privacy and Internet Research

  1. violawiegand says:

    Many thanks for sharing, it’s a fascinating topic :)! I’ve come across the work of both danah boyd and Helen Nissenbaum in the context of surveillance studies and have been wanting to engage more with the topic of privacy.

    Does the free access to the article start later? Somehow I’m still hitting a paywall.

    • jaimack says:

      Thanks Viola! No it’s free access now – I just tried the link and it worked fine, strange that you couldn’t get on… maybe try again and let me know if you’re still not getting through!

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