Guiding the E-Researcher: January 18-29, 2010

Ethical and Consent Issues

Ethical and Consent Issues

by Janet Salmons -
Number of replies: 6

Ethical issues are complex in any setting, and are particularly complex in online interview research. Ethical issues are central to any review by the committee or for academic or scientific merit, as well as to review by institutional review boards.

The chapter (4) on this topic is the biggest in the book-- and themes related to ethical practice are woven throughout other chapters as well.

I'd like to highlight a few inter-related issues in this discussion: ethical issues

Fair Information Processing, Confidentiality and Informed Consent.

Fair Information Processing refers to protection of data, spelling out that data should be collected for the purpose noted in the agreement, participants should have access to the data and the right to correct inaccuracies. Confidentiality must be honored; personal data are not to be communicated externally without explicit consent.

These issues lead to the third: informed consent. Perhaps the most important ethical principle in research involves actions by researchers to ensure that participation of subjects is voluntarily and will cause no harm.

Researchers seeking informed consent need to make clear to their subjects how material about them and/or from them will be used; the specific uses of material and how their identities will be protected are part of information subjects need to understand before signing an agreement.

Any interviewee must sign a consent agreement, regardless of how casual the interaction may be. There is no ambiguity where that is concerned. However, for other associated research activities many shades of gray are present. So, if you want to complement, prepare for or follow-up your interview with some observations, the question of consent is less clear.

Data collection in “public” face-to-face settings is typically exempt from informed consent when individuals are not identified. Observing people on the street or at a community event could be clearly described as data collection in public. The determination of public versus private space online is not clear cut or universally defined.

After reviewing the literature, I developed a continuum I hope will be useful for people who are trying to determine when trying to determine whether the interaction is public or private.

In other words, according to this model, if you are in a forum (like this one!) and chat with someone with the intention of recording/saving and using the response as data, then it is an "interview" and consent is needed. If you are observing general trends in posting and contribution to a discussion in a setting that is open to the public (such as this one) and do not quote any individual posts, then it could be argued that it is equivalent to observation of a public discussion in a local community center.


In reply to Janet Salmons

Discussion Questions

by Janet Salmons -

What do you think? Where would you draw the line for required consent agreement? What about the gray areas-- where some restrictions prevent public viewing or posting? Do you think in those settings consent is more, or less, critical?

As an educator who might review research proposals, what would you look for to demonstrate adequate respect for research ethics? As a researcher, how would you, or have you, wrestled with these decisions and distinctions?

(There are additional ethical issues of sampling and identity...we'll talk about them in the next discussion thread!)

In reply to Janet Salmons

Re: Discussion Questions

by Jeffrey Keefer -
I wonder what (if anything) this thread about ethics and consent is saying in how quiet it has been . . .
In reply to Janet Salmons

Re: Ethical and Consent Issues

by Jeffrey Keefer -


Your continuum is quite helpful; thank you for sharing it. The two versions in your text are quite an interesting distinction you make. Question about this; are you suggesting that if we make use of the more public material (in either chart), then we should make direct reference to the works (and thus identify the subjects)?

Thank you.


In reply to Jeffrey Keefer

Re: Ethical and Consent Issues

by Janet Salmons -

For those following along in the text,Jeffrey is referring to Chapter 4, figures 4.1 and 4.2. I extend this discussion of public and private online spaces in Chapter 5's exploration of sampling.

I am suggesting that observations about the nature and practices etc. of a public online community, social networking site or online event can be safely made without identifying yourself as a "researcher" and obtaining consent.

If you are going to quote a specific participant, then you are in the gray area. What are the norms of the community? Do people expect they are in a restricted environment or do they expect they are in public? For example, if you post a comment on you probably expect it is public. If you post something in an online community for people recovering from sexual abuse, your expectations might be different. It is a judgment call whether, based on the nature of the environment and the way you want to use data collected, you need to identify yourself and ask for consent. In some cases a community has a moderator who can be consulted, which can help you decide what to do.

Is it ethical, for example, for a researcher who is not recovering from sexual abuse to join a community/email list with the sole purpose of scholarly observation, without identifying oneself to the group as a researcher? In the literature I read there was much disagreement on this point. If the list is free and open where is the harm, some argue, and declaring one's presence as a researcher might influence the path of discussion. You can cite and reference the webpage as you would for any other online resource. 

My bias would be to err on the side of caution, and either consult a moderator or be honest about my intentions in the case where participants are likely to expect that they are sharing within a like-minded community or where personal, sensitive topics are being discussed. Then if specific participants make comments you want to quote, contact the person and ask permission.

At the private end of the spectrum, consent would be always be required.

What do you think? Would you construct the continua any differently?

In reply to Janet Salmons

Re: Ethical and Consent Issues

by Susan Santo -

So if I am talking to different people in a forum and want to use their posts, then I need each one of them to sign a consent form? Is it okay simply to ask them and have them reply?

Also, what if I'm talking to an avatar and that person does not want his/her true identity exposed?


In reply to Susan Santo

Re: Ethical and Consent Issues

by Janet Salmons -

Two different situations, similar answers:

"So if I am talking to different people in a forum and want to use their posts, then I need each one of them to sign a consent form?"

Yes. You need to explain the nature of the study, discuss how the data will be used, how it will be protected, whether they can be quoted or want to be anonymous (e.g. "participant A", first name only), voluntary participation and right to discontinue without penalty, etc..

"Also, what if I'm talking to an avatar and that person does not want his/her true identity exposed? " Two possible pathe: don't want to expose identity to you, as a researcher? That is tricky. How do you know the person is over 18 and can legally sign the agreement? (If under 18, parent/guardian must sign.) If they will expose identity to you as researcher, you can mask identity in the data analysis and report (again, "participant A").

If you are looking at the book, follow the Researchers' Notebook story of Jon Cabiria. He got his proposal through the IRB with avatars signing the consent agreement. It took six months-- and required a research design with multiple interactions/interviews so he could cross check and verify data.

There are other issues that must be considered in 2nd Life, related to observation, viewing the information included in the profile, etc that must be negotiated with the participant as part of the agreement.