There is an increased prevalence of research based on online material and this can be attributed to the increased use of the internet and digitalization of people’s lives. In view of this UCLan has collated some guidance for researchers wishing to conduct research within the digital medium.
Any research project can involve the use of online surveys, questionnaires, social media, data processing, data analysis and storage. When completing your application for ethical approval, staff and students should consider the guidance below and consult with your supervisor where needed or applicable.
Internet mediated research is generally referred to as research involving online activities to acquire data on participants, e.g. social networks, web-based surveys, video communications. This is defined by the Association of Internet Researchers (AOIB) Ethics Working Committee (2012) as research which:
utilizes the internet to collect data or information, e.g., through online interviews, surveys, archiving, or automated means of data scraping;
studies how people use and access the internet, e.g., through collecting and observing activities or participating on social network sites, listservs, web sites, blogs, games, virtual worlds, or other online environments or contexts;
utilizes or engages in data processing, analysis, or storage of datasets, databanks, and/or repositories available via the internet;
studies software, code, and internet technologies;
examines the design or structures of systems, interfaces, pages, and elements;
employs visual and textual analysis, semiotic analysis, content analysis, or other methods of analysis to study the web and/or internet-facilitated images, writings, and media forms; and
Studies large scale production, use, and regulation of the internet by governments, industries, corporations, and military forces.
Researchers should consider the ethics for Internet mediated research, some of the issues raised are:
• Identity and location of participants.
• Inability to accurately locate participants, restricting the ability of researchers to intervene should participants disclose intentions to cause harm to themselves or others, or harmful behaviour viewed on Skype.
• Consent ensuring parents are involved in research involving children as would happen in face to face research.
• Assessing mental capacity of participants.
• Anonymity with data protection laws.
Compliance with data protection laws.
• The provision of online support links and organisations.
• Indemnity arrangements for the researchers.
Guidance for Internet Mediated Research
Particular attention should be given to the ethical considerations surrounding any Internet based research. Below are listed some issues which need to be carefully examined.
Consent and withdrawal
Ensure the consent process is robust and have a clear pathway for consent recording.
Proportionate consent procedure should be in place depending on the research data being collected.
Ensure the consent is appropriate and valid, the consent process should be adapted to consider vulnerable participants or sensitive data.
A clear process for withdrawal from the research procedures, easy to access withdrawal point throughout each procedure e.g. option to withdraw on each page of an online survey.
Participant informed at which point their data cannot be withdrawn from the study.
If you will be accessing or collecting data that can be linked back to individuals, make sure you complete the data protection checklist as part of the ethics process, and consult the University’s guidance on Data Protection for Researchers.
Data is considered to link to an individual if it is linked to an online identifier such as an IP address or online username (such as a Twitter handle), even if you cannot link this to a person’s name.
Privacy notices - research participants
Data sources and online information
Ensure any data used is clearly in the public domain and avoid data which has any uncertainty associated unless it is approved for use.
Table 1 provides a guide to considerations, and other useful links include:
Ethics guidelines for internet-mediated research (British Psychological Society website)