Ethics of online research
November 27, 2005 7:05 PM Subscribe
I am a research assistant for a project that involves studying participants in a website for a particular deviant sexuality. I think my research methodology is unethical, but my supervisor disagrees. What can I do? Is the internet a public or private place?
posted by anonymous to education (47 answers total)
The only way to study this group is to join as a member. We made up several fake email accounts in order to make several fake membership profiles, and we sign in under these profiles to examine the profiles of the real members. If I were just a lurker, it wouldn't be so bad, but members have begun to contact my persona. I have found out that they get a notification if I look at their profile; this is clearly not simply observation anymore. Also, I am of the firm belief that parts of the internet which require membership are not public spaces.
I have mentionned my concerns to my supervisor and he said that the internet is public space and does not require the ethical considerations usually given to human subjects research. The profiles I am studying have some very personal and possibly damaging information, and some of them even have pictures. I know that if I were in their place, I would feel violated. This website prides itself on discretion and respect.
I am very concerned that we are being deceptive and putting our unknowing-informants at risk. I can't antagonize my supervisor, though, because I can't afford to sacrifice this position. I am a lowly undergraduate trying to show a presence in the department. When I confronted him and asked him about the ethical issues, he became really defensive.
Is this research really unethical, or am I making a big deal over nothing? How can I salvage this project without burning this bridge?