John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Feb 00 (1.0)

Ethics in Cyberspace Research

Consent, Privacy and Contribution

The boom of social activities within cyberspace has been followed closely by a boom in the social scientific studies of those activities. Researchers in psychology, sociology, and anthropology have launched scientific expeditions into nearly all of the widespread territories of the internet. Online experimental studies, surveys, interviews, field observations, participant-observation - the whole range of research tools are being brought to bear in this attempt to figure out how people and groups are behaving in the virtual universe.

Solid research means solid ethics. What are the responsibilities of the researcher to the participants in the research? The Ethical Standards of the American Psychological Association (

) does a good job in answering this question - one very critical component being "informed consent." Here are some of the features of informed consent as described in the Standards:

- Prior to conducting research, investigators enter into a documented agreement with participants that clarifies the nature of the research and the responsibilities of each party.

- When obtaining this informed consent, researchers use language that is reasonably understandable to the participants.

- Informed consent is obtained before recording the subjects in any way.

- Investigators explain significant factors that may be expected to influence the person's willingness to participate (such as risks, discomfort, adverse effects, or limitations on confidentiality) and other aspects about which the person may inquire.

- Researchers tell participants that they can withdraw from the research at any time as well as explain the foreseeable consequences of declining to participate or withdrawing.

- For persons who are legally incapable of giving informed consent, investigators nevertheless provide an appropriate explanation, obtain the person's consent, and obtain appropriate permission from a legally authorized person, if such substitute consent is permitted by law.

- Researchers inform participants of their anticipated sharing or further use of personally identifiable research data and of the possibility of unanticipated future uses.

- Investigators provide a prompt opportunity for participants to obtain appropriate information about the nature, results, and conclusions of the research, and they attempt to correct any misconceptions that participants may have.

A second important component of the Standards deals with confidentiality. In reports or presentations of their research, investigators do not disclose confidential or personally identifiable information concerning their subjects unless the person has given written permission (or unless there is some other ethical or legal authorization to do so). "Ordinarily," the Standards add, "in such scientific and professional presentations, psychologists disguise confidential information concerning such persons or organizations so that they are not individually identifiable to others and so that discussions do not cause harm to subjects who might identify themselves."

Last, the Standards address the issue of appropriate consultation and evaluation. If an ethical issue is unclear, researchers seek to resolve the question through consultation with peers or institutional review boards. Generally speaking, as part of the process of developing and implementing the project, researchers consult those with expertise regarding any special population under investigation or most likely to be affected. They also obtain from host institutions or organizations appropriate approval prior to conducting the research. Investigators and their assistants should only perform those tasks for which they are appropriately trained and prepared.

The Standards do note possible exceptions. They suggest that informed consent may not be necessary for anonymous questionnaires, naturalistic observations, or certain kinds of archival research - although it suggests that the researcher first consult with colleagues or review boards. It specifically mentions that informed consent prior to recording subjects may not be necessary for simple naturalistic observation in public spaces, and when it is not anticipated that the recording will be used in a manner that could cause personal identification or harm.

The Standards also state that deceiving subjects should only occur when it is justified by the study's prospective scientific, educational, or applied value and when equally effective alternative procedures that do not use deception are not feasible. "Psychologists do not deceive research participants about significant aspects that would affect their willingness to participate, such as physical risks, discomfort, or unpleasant emotional experiences. Any other deception that is an integral feature of the design and conduct of an experiment must be explained to participants as early as is feasible, preferably at the conclusion of their participation, but no later than at the conclusion of the research."

These APA Standards set the basic foundation for ethical research. However, a variety of complex issues arise in cyberspace studies that can make the application of these standards a bit tricky. Cyberspace alters the temporal, spatial, and sensory components of human interaction, thereby challenging traditional ethical definitions and calling to question some basic assumptions about identity and one's right to keep aspects of it confidential. For example, "recording" someone probably includes chat logs, e-mail, and message boards. If so, and the researcher contacts and interacts with subjects via the internet, then the recording is always on until turned off, when records are deleted. Should that be mentioned in the informed consent?.... Recording of public behavior is permissible, but how do we want to define "public" in a virtual universe filled with many thousands of rooms and channels, all varying in how easy is to get to them and how many people are openly active or secretly lurking in that space. Is it the technical limitations on access to that channel that should define privacy - or, as many researchers now believe, the person's subjective impression of confidentiality, whether or not people believe they are speaking without being heard?.... With everything easily and often recorded in cyberspace, what constitutes an "archive?" Is who archives it important?.... When many online people present minimal, partial or imaginary aspects of their identity, you can't always verify who is who. What should be known about a person's identity before they become a subject? How do you know for sure you are always working with the people you think you are working with? Do imaginary screen names and online persona qualify as confidential information, or should the researcher's report disguise what already looks something like a disguise? It's critical to know whether a subject is a minor, but how do you verify the age of the person? Researchers too can easily hide the fact that they are researchers, or even pretend to be someone else, which is probably acceptable in an environment where everyone else is doing the same thing. Or is it?

All of these questions indicate the various twists and turns in online research, so consultation with experts is important. But who are they? Is cyberspace research significantly different from traditional research that it warrants new standards of expertise? Some say yes.

In this age of expanding access to information, a critical ethical responsibility is recognizing the right to privacy. In chat rooms, e-mail channels, and message boards, it's temptingly easy to gather information without people having any idea they are part of a research project. Even if conceptualized as archival research, naturalistic studies, or participant-observation, a published article or public presentation of the project easily could violate the privacy of an individual or group. It could cause them harm. To prevent these deleterious effects, the investigator needs a solid grounding in ethical thinking.

As a result of my consulting on research projects - and of my own research - I've developed a list of questions that investigators should consider when gathering and reporting their data. It may be impossible, unnecessary, or even detrimental for the investigator to follow all of the "rules" implied in these questions. Every research project is unique, with different demands and varying standards about what is necessary or sufficient ethical responsibility. These questions are guidelines to be interpreted appropriately by the conscientious social scientist. Ideally, the investigator will seriously consider and address as many of these questions as possible:

1. Informed Consent from the Subjects and Responsible Authorities

-- Is the person or group aware of the research being done and what will happen with the research findings?

-- Were they notified of the research study before, during, or after data collection?

-- Was explicit permission obtained from the person or group for the researcher to conduct the study and write about the findings?

-- Has the researcher informed participants about issues regarding the confidentiality of the channel being used to communicate with them, and about the confidentiality of any records kept by the researcher or by the subjects?

-- Are the people who own or operate the group or its channel aware of the purpose of the research. Have they given their consent?

-- Has the person or group been debriefed after the study is complete? Have they seen and given feedback on the written research report?

-- Is permission (informed consent) obtained for the use of quotes or for describing specific people?

-- Are the respondents adults or minors? How can their age be verified? Was informed consent obtained from legal guardians?

-- Did the researcher himself create the group for the purpose of gathering data? If so, was informed consent obtained?

-- Is the researcher a participant in the group or just an observer? Are the subjects aware of the researcher's role?

-- Are group members who are quoted or described in the report still active in the group?

2. Privacy of the Communication Channel, Records, and Research Reports

-- How has the researcher protected the confidentiality of the channel she is using to communicate with subjects and of the records kept by the researcher and the subjects?

-- Is the communication channel a public space or is it operated privately with restricted access?

-- Do the person or group members PERCEIVE the communication channel as being private?

-- How easily can the person's or group's communications with the researcher be accessed by other people?

-- Is it possible for outsiders to find messages from the person or the group by using internet search engines?

-- Were the communications of the person or group recorded in a public or private archive? What are the role and responsibilities of the person or group who created the archive?

-- Is the identity of the person or group members kept confidential in the records and reports of the research? (e.g., by altering or eliminating any information that could reveal who they are)

-- Is the identity/location of the online group protected in the records and reports?

-- Is there any possibility of harm to the person, the group, or the group's members by the research and what is discussed in the research report?

3. Consultation and Evaluation of the Study

-- Has the researcher consulted colleagues about the ethical issues involved in the study? Are these colleagues knowledgeable about the unique features of cyberspace research?

-- Has the research been approved by a research ethics committee? Are committee members knowledgeable about the unique features of cyberspace research?

-- Is the research of significant merit to the scientific community to warrant the methods used?

In my own research, I like to do more in addition to protecting people's privacy. A great deal of my research involves a participant-observation approach - my work at the Palace being one good example. I am not just studying a group or community. I'm also a member. Anything I learn as a researcher I try to give back to the group. If I discover an insight into the community or a change that might improve its well-being, I talk about it with people. The spirit of participant-observation is that being a researcher and conscientious citizen go hand-in-hand. Even when I study groups of which I am not a member, or am interviewing a particular person, I try to give useful feedback. One way I do that is by writing an article that will be valuable not only to my fellow social scientists, but also to the people I am writing about. For example, after receiving feedback via e-mail, I was pleased to learn that my article about the Geezer Brigade has been helpful to its members as well as to people who discovered the group through my article, and consequently wanted to join it.

I think that when a researcher emphasizes the importance of making a helpful contribution to the person or group being studied, many - if not all - of the other ethical responsibilities also are fulfilled.

This article is
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See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

The Basic Psychological Features of Cyberspace
One of Us: Participant Observation Research at the Palace
Intensive Case Studies in Cyberspace

See also on other web sites:

Ethical and legal aspects of human subjects research in cyberspace
(a report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science)

back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page