The ethical use of twitter and blogs in research

The ethical use of twitter and blogs in research

A conversation happened on twitter today that began with the question:

I actually have the same questions when it comes to using blogs in research. The current tri-council rules (the ethics guidelines for research in Canada) have not caught up with social media. Ethics committees are left to making their own decisions as to what constitutes ethical use of internet data. This is additionally challenged because the far majority of the people on the ethics committees do not understand the media on which they are being asked to adjudicate. Asking someone who has never tweeted or participated in a twitter community to decide what it ethical use of twitter doesn’t make any sense. I think the same goes for ethical use of blogs. Ethics boards need to do a better job of reaching out to experts in the communities under study before making judgements about what is and what is not ethical.

I wrote a little bit about it last year after attending social media and society – Ethics of Researching Twitter Communities. I also did a bunch of thinking aloud about the Ethics of Open Data Collection, especially relating to blog research.

I immediately reached out to someone who I think of as an expert in research involving Twitter, Bonnie Stewart. She did a great job of summarizing it for me:

In short, if you are just counting things (like network analysis), and you are taking data in aggregate, then twitter data is OK to use. However, if you are doing research that requires an understanding of context, then it is much more complicated. It is difficult to understand context with just tweets, or just blogs posts. There is so much of the “context” that happens that is not publicly shared on the Internet. So, making conclusions that involve humanizing the tweeps or bloggers, could cause harm to the tweep or blogger. This is where the researcher should be reaching out and asking for permission to use the data, but also asking for contextual confirmation.

I have seen a lot of instances of where blog data has been used by researchers. It is often used by Masters students as an easy source of data that does not require ethics approval. This is also the case with the use of twitter data. It is often used by students as an easy source of data that does not require ethics approval to access. When it is a class paper that isn’t going anywhere, I’m inclined to say ‘whatever’ and not worry about it. But if it is a doctoral student or a career researcher, then they should know better. They should understand the nuances of the media they are studying.

And that goes to my next rant about bad research. If you want to research a social phenomena, spend a little time figuring out the communication norms within that media. I read one published research article where the authors did not seek permission from any blogger that didn’t post their email on the blog’s about page. They assumed that if the blogger didn’t share their email, that meant they did not want to be contacted. This, to me as a blogger, is a clear example of how the researcher did not understand the media. The primary way to communicate with a blogger is by leaving a comment on their blog (or if they have a Facebook page then on their Facebook page), not by sending them an email. This was a case where the researchers didn’t understand the media – so how could we then assume that they interpreted anything they read correctly? As outsiders, their observations were not the deep reflections that they reported them to be. No matter how many different text analysis tools they used, the interpretation of the data cannot adequately represent the phenomena under study when the researchers don’t have even a basic grasp of what is normative behavior within that media.

I would go one further than Bonnie, in that she used the measurement of risk of harm as her moral compass. I also want to highlight the ethical implications of not providing appropriate attribution. Researchers, mistakenly, like to anonymize internet data like tweets under the auspices of protecting the research participants. However, if the data is public, then direct quotes can easily be traced directly back to the tweep or blogger. There is no such thing as anonymized direct quote of an internet source. This is something I wish researchers, ethics boards, and journal editors understood. It is especially annoying when the anonymized direct quote comes from a blog of someone who has died. That really pisses me off – because you are stealing words from someone who is dead. It is just plain wrong.

I wish knew of a place where one could submit an article about the ethical use of internet data (specifically twitter and blogs) for research use. This would help a lot of people better appreciate how to evaluate research proposals that involve twitter, blogs, and other types of social media.

Feature image by Chris Potter (Flickr: 3D Judges Gavel) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons



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