24 August 2018 | by Linda Kaye
With the development of Web 2.0, there are increasing possibilities for researchers to functionally use domains of the Internet for supporting their research.
These may range from using online survey software for developing survey instruments to collect research data, or using websites such as social media to advertise research and disseminate findings, to even more intricate or complex uses such as garnering behavioural data from websites to understand behavioural patterns.
All these typically fall under the umbrella of Internet-mediated research (IMR), in which research is supported by being connected to a functional online environment.
Clearly this presents opportunities for researchers, specifically in facilitating greater access to diverse samples (Gosling, Vazire, Srivastava & John, 2004), and affording what is typically a more efficient research approach to that of more traditional research paradigms.
IMR is by no means a new phenomenon from the perspective of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Indeed, the BPS’s first publication of ethical issues for IMR was back in 2013, which has since been fully updated in 2017.
The BPS, in their most recent Ethical Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research define IMR as “any research involving the remote acquisition of data from or about human participants using the internet and its associated technologies.” (BPS, 2017, pp3).
This further defines IMR by distinguishing between reactive and non-reactive methodologies, whereby a reactive approach consists participants interacting with materials (e.g., online questionnaires, interviews) whereas non-reactive is when researchers make use of data which is collected unobtrusively (data mining, observations).
These guidelines outline a set of ethical principles, including informed consent and withdrawal, for example, as well as those which are more exclusive to IMR, such as online privacy.
Although these guidelines provide a basis for supporting participant protection and risk aversion, what has not yet been clear in any policy documentation, are the principles to protect researchers who are conducting IMR.
Whilst researchers will conduct their own independent risk assessments of any research activity, there may be specific risks to some forms of IMR which are not so apparent in other psychology research paradigms.
The paradox of the Internet affording access to wider or more diverse populations for supporting research, is that this may also permit researchers’ personal information to be disseminated more widely or for greater possibility of them receiving unsolicited attention.
For example, if researchers are using social media to advertise their survey links or to access social media data, they would be required to either create a new profile or use their own personal one, which has sufficient detail for potential participants to be encouraged that they are a reputable source.
As such, this may require researchers to provide their contact details, photo(s), a username, and to make connections with other users and engage with content on the site; all of which may give away more information about the researcher than they may otherwise provide in other research practices. Additionally, researchers may use discussion boards or fora to advertise their research and engage in discussions with others users, which may result in them being open to abuse or harassment.
As well as potential risks, there are also additional assurances which researchers should be mindful of when conducting forms of IMR. These may include at certain level of engagement in online communities such as contributing to discussion boards before simply registering just to “dump” a survey link to a site. Indeed, many discussion boards will not permit this practice anyway, and will require new members to comment on a set amount of existing content prior to adding new threads.
In other cases, posts with survey links are often deleted by moderators as these are deemed to be “spam”. Therefore community engagement at all stages of the research process is good practice. This also includes responding to comments and questions which may be posted directly to adverts, and continuing dialogue with participants or interested parties after data collection is complete (see Kaye, 2018 for further details on these issues).
Some of the specific issues which would benefit from more explicit policy guidance are:
The above list is by no means exhaustive, but it is intended that this can provide a basis for further consideration of these important issues, and inform policy development and practice.