New Entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Internet Research Ethics”

I’m thrilled to announce that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has published a new entry on “Internet Research Ethics“, written by Elizabeth Buchanan and myself. The introduction and table of contents are below. I’m confident the existence of this entry in such a popular and prestigious publication will help increase awareness of these important issues.

Internet Research Ethics
First published Fri Jun 22, 2012

There is little research that is not impacted in some way on or through the Internet. The Internet, as a field, a tool, and a venue, has specific and far reaching ethical issues. Internet research ethics is a subdiscipline that fits across many disciplines, ranging from social sciences, arts and humanities, medical/biomedical, and hard sciences. Extant ethical frameworks, including consequentialism, utilitarianism, deontology, virtue ethics, and feminist ethics have contributed to the ways in which ethical issues in Internet research are considered and evaluated.

Conceptually and historically, Internet research ethics is related to computer and information ethics and includes such ethical issues as data privacy and confidentiality, integrity of data, intellectual property issues, and professional standards. Throughout the Internet’s evolution, there has been debate whether there are new ethical dilemmas emerging, or if the existing dilemmas are consistent across research or despite technological influence (Elgesem 2002; Walther 2002; Ess & AoIR 2002). These debates are similar to philosophical debates in computer and information ethics. For example, many years ago, Moor asked “what is special about computers” in order to understand what is ethically unique and the same question applies to Internet research (Moor 1985; Ess & AoIR 2002; King 1996).

Yet, as the Internet has evolved into a more social and communicative tool and venue, the ethical issues have shifted from purely data driven to more human-centered. “On-ground” or face-to face analogies may not be applicable to online research. For example, the concept of the public park has been used as a site where researchers can observe others, but online, the concepts of public and private are much more complex. Thus, some scholars suggest that the specificity of Internet research ethics calls for new regulatory and/or professional and disciplinary guidance. For these reasons, the concept of human subjects research policy and regulation informs this entry, along with disciplinary standards, which will explore the growing areas of ethical and methodological complexity, including personal identifiability, reputational risk and harm, notions of public space and public text, ownership, and longevity of data as they relate to Internet research. Specifically, the emergence of the social web raises issues around subject or participant recruitment practices, tiered informed consent models, and protection of various expectations and forms of privacy in an ever-increasing world of diffused and ubiquitous technologies; anonymity and confidentiality of data in spaces where researchers and their subjects may not fully understand the terms and conditions of those venues or tools; challenges to data integrity as research projects can be outsourced to a mechanical turk or a bot; and jurisdictional issues as more research is processed, stored, and disseminated via cloud computing or in remote server locales, presenting myriad legal complexities given jurisdictional differences in data laws.

As a result, researchers using the Internet as a tool or a space of research—and their research ethics boards (REBs), also known as institutional review boards (IRBs) in the United States or human research ethics committees (HRECs) in other countries such as Australia—have been confronted with a series of new ethical enquiries: What ethical obligations do researchers have to protect the privacy of subjects engaging in activities in “public” Internet spaces? How is confidentiality or anonymity assured online? How is and should informed consent be obtained online? How should research on minors be conducted, and how do you prove a subject is not a minor? Is deception (pretending to be someone you are not, withholding identifiable information, etc) online a norm or a harm? How is “harm” possible to someone existing in an online space?

A growing number of scholars have explored these and related questions (see, for example, Bromseth 2002; Bruckman 2006; Buchanan 2004; Buchanan & Ess 2008; Gullor & Ess 2003; Johns, Chen & Hall 2003; Kitchin 2003, 2008; King 1996; Mann 2003; Markham & Baym 2008; McKee & Porter 2009; Thorseth 2003), scholarly associations have drafted ethical guidelines for Internet research (Ess & Association of Internet Researchers 2002; Kraut et al. 2004), and non-profit scholarly and scientific agencies such as AAAS (Frankel & Siang 1999) have begun to confront the myriad of ethical concerns that Internet research poses to researchers and research ethics boards (REBs).


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