Internet-mediated research can take place in a range of settings, for example email, chat rooms, web pages, social media (eg Facebook or Twitter) and various forms of instant messaging. These can pose specific ethics dilemmas, such as:
- What constitutes 'privacy' in an online environment?
- How easy is it to get informed consent from the participants in the community being researched?
- What does informed consent entail in that context?
- How certain is the researcher that they can establish the ‘real’ identity of the participants?
- When is deception or covert observation justifiable?
- How are issues of identifiability addressed?
- How do country-specific legal requirements (eg for data protection) apply in internet-mediated research that crosses national boundaries?
Information provided in forums, social media or spaces on the internet that are intentionally public would be considered 'in the public domain', but the public nature of any communication or information on the internet or through social media should always be critically examined. The identity of individuals should be protected, wherever possible, unless identity disclosure is critical to the research, such as in statements by public officials, or permission has been sought. For research that involves the use of social media, researchers will also need to abide by the regulations set by the data producers, subject to such regulations being consistent with legal and ethical guidelines.
The potential identifiability of online sources, as well as ethics debates about how privacy is constituted in digital contexts, means that full ethics review may be appropriate for research involving these communities. For example, people often assume that social media sources are public domain, but it is quite likely that some service users - including children - may not understand the implications of what they are doing, and those harvesting data may also uncover illegal images or activities. Researchers should assess the risk of making such a discovery and consider their legal and ethical obligations. Researchers, research participants and reviewers of research ethics will often encounter new or unfamiliar ethics questions and dilemmas.
There is a growing literature on ethics in online research. A good starting point is the Association of Internet Researchers 'Ethical decision-making and internet research' 2012, and the British Psychological Society 'Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research' 2013.
In this fast-developing area research ethics committees may need to involve an independent expert in assessing research proposals that break new ground.