Serfaty outlines a number of ethical considerations encountered researching online diaries. I call these personal blogs. In many cases these writings contain subject matter of an intensely personal nature. But they are published on the Internet and easily located with the use of a search engine. In fact many personal bloggers make their writings even more accessible through RSS feeds and email subscriptions.
What then are the ethic considerations of collecting information from these sites?
In a lecture by Associate Professor Stephan Millet at Curtin today the importance of gaining ethical clearance before commencing research was made abundantly clear. In fact any data collected prior to ethics clearance cannot be used. Full stop, end of story.
Ethics clearance is required so that research complies with the NHMRC Act (1992).
The goal of ethics clearance is to ensure that the participants in any research are protected. It’s essential that the research disclose all relevant facts up front.
Research ethics rest on three broad areas of consideration:
- Respect: of and for personal autonomy
- Beneficence: doing good to the subject
- Justice: is the overall benefit worth whatever the personal costs?
The researcher must ask the question: Does the subject know what they’re getting into?
It is essential that the researcher must, at all times, seek to avoid harm to the research subject. Harm may arise by removing markers of a person’s identity and (accidentally) breaching privacy. There is a positive burden on the researcher to proactively avoid harm and to look for doing good.
If in doubt apply a common-sense test. Would grandma participate?
Curtin have a two-tier approach to ethics clearance. One is for low risk research (Form C) where there is little risk in collecting information from research subjects. The other is More Than Low Risk (Form A), which requires a detailed ethics clearance process.
There are three broad areas of research risk assessment:
- Ability and experience of researcher. As I’ve not conducted any research I would almost certainly be classed as a Level 3 (high) risk.
- Vulnerability of the participants. The more vulnerable the participant, the greater the risk. I’ll be researching publicly published personal blogs written by adults and I therefore see little issues of vulnerability. I rate this area as Level 1 (low) risk.
- Nature of the research. This is where the question of what I’ll be researching becomes crucial. If all I do is textual analysis of public documents then there will be no contact at all with the research subject. My research will create no more risks than if I read, and quoted, a published book from a public library. On the other hand, if I start interacting with blog authors, asking them questions and participating in their blog then the vulnerability of the subject increases. If I take the former path my assessment of risk is Level 1 (low), but if the latter the risk could be as high as Level 3 (high)
The risk score at this stage looks to be somewhere between 7 (very high, extra reporting may be required) and 5 (borderline, may only require a Form C).
I’ll need to talk this through with my supervisors as I progress towards Candidacy.