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?

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?
posted by anonymous to Education (47 answers total)
Did this project clear the human subjects research board at your school? I know most universities review all projects including human subjects. You should go to the review board and do a little research about this ethics of this project.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:20 PM on November 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

i think it's pretty clear that it didn't, since the supevisor is argruing that it does not require the ethical considerations usually given to human subjects research.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:23 PM on November 27, 2005

Your university has a committee that approves or oversees human-subject research, right? That's the only place you can get an answer to your question. You can just ask them whether or not such a project would fall under their purview (i.e. is it human-subject research and/or are these public or private spaces), rather than going through the whole rigamarole. If they do consider it to be human-subject research (and they'll find out about it eventually, unless you don't plan to let anyone know about your findings) and you don't check with them, you might have an unpleasant experience with them later on.

If they say it's human-subject research, it doesn't matter what anyone on mefi says, that's the way you've got to treat it.

If they say it's not, then it's either do the research or stand up to your prof on your own (again, the opinion from mefi doesn't help much).
posted by winston at 7:24 PM on November 27, 2005

Yea, you're probably correct, andrew cooke. I think Anonymous should present their concerns to the human subjects review board, if only in an informal fashion. There are real people behind the SNs and photographs, and considering the study concerns sexually deviant behavior, the risk for "outing" people is huge.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 7:26 PM on November 27, 2005 [1 favorite]

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.

It costs more to confront a researcher as a grad student than as an undergrad.
posted by Rothko at 7:34 PM on November 27, 2005

If you joined the group, I'm guessing you (and your research subjects) explicitly or implicitly agreed to some Terms of Service- those might be worth going through. Perhaps by joining, your subjects consented to have their information republished or used subject to certain conditions, or perhaps you and your research groups agreed not to use their information in the way it's being used in the project. This may not resolve the ethical issues, but it would be a good thing to know before discussing further with your advisor or the research board.
posted by MonkeyMeat at 7:41 PM on November 27, 2005

Don't go to the human subjects review board just yet. Find someone in the department who outranks your supervisor (department chair?), and have a discreet and confidential conversation with him/her. Explain the situation. Explain that you don't wish to alienate your supervisor. Ask for a recommendation on how best to proceed. Consider following that recommendation.

You don't want to broadside your supervisor with an angry review board. Better to keep this "in the family" until you have some more perspective. A department chair is supposed to solve these questions.

FWIW, I'm inclined to side with your advisor. However, my research doesn't ever involve human subjects. Caveat emptor, and tread lightly.
posted by funkbrain at 7:46 PM on November 27, 2005

i just deleted a load of stuff on preview because i think funkbrain is right. there's always someone pretty decent and high-up. if necessary, ask a friendly postdoc for a recommendation for who to approach. you must do something, and funkbrain's suggestion is both least likely to cause a political problem and best at protecting you if the shit hits the fan later.

i really do think you must do something. you are right to be concerned and right to ask about this. and don't worry too much about upsetting other people. it might be a bit of a surprise, but academics generally appreciate undergraduates who actually think from time to time.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:52 PM on November 27, 2005

This is completely unethical.

The internet is a public space in the sense that everyone can go there. However, this is completely irrelevant. Think about it with analogy to other public spaces: bars/malls/clubs/gyms/parks. You cannot go into a bar/mall/club/gym/park and interact with people for the purpose of data collection without their consent.* You cannot introduce yourself as someone you are not, nor misrepresent yourself or the nature of your research.

See the American Sociological Assocation's code of ethics, particularly the section on Informed Consent.

I realize you are in a power relationship, anon, and that it should not be your responsibiity to police your professor's ethics. If you decide to speak up, you will not make your professor happy. But on the other hand, as Andrew Cooke says, other people will think better of you for it. Nobody likes researchers who make the rest of us look bad. And if you're thinking of staying in the field you're in, being heavily involved in a project later revealed to be unethical, may well reflect far worse on you than whistle blowing.

Oh, and public restrooms are also public places. But the Tearoom Trade (a study of sexually deviant behaviour in a public place) is used over and over again as a classic example of unethical research.

* You might be able to watch them without their consent, presuming there's no interaction. The analagous here would be to read the web sites, but not actually interact with people. Once you're interacting with people you cross the line to where human subjects does need to be involved.
posted by duck at 8:10 PM on November 27, 2005

lowly undergraduate trying to show a presence in the department
If the advisor is doing this now, is he likely to have done it before? Will he have earned a reputation among his colleagues as being ethically-challenged? Does that affect his students' reputations/connections/recommendations? Do you want to find out? It might be wise to find another mentor...
posted by whatzit at 8:13 PM on November 27, 2005

This is positively a research study involving human subjects. As such, it needs to go through a Human Subject review board, if only for them to certify that it is an exempt project. The terms for what constitutes an exempt project differ from university to university, but usually it's defined as one where there is no danger of anonymity being compromised and where the topic is not provocative. Neither one of these is the case in this instance.

The study has threats to anonymity, it's about a highly sensitive topic, *and* participants are being misled by not being informed that it's a research study so that they can provide informed consent. I don't know what the research topic is, but suppose someone on the website discussed their ongoing molestation of a child? Researchers who pull stunts like this have their funding pulled, and are made an example of. This is not only unethical, it's a lawsuit waiting to happen, and *that's* why your advisor got defensive.

Here's a link to the NIH office of Human Subjects Research, and here's one for the American Psychological Association code of ethics (subsection 8 deals with research). [both are .pdf files]

Good for you for noticing, and good for you for seeking guidance! You are acting like an ethical person!

What can you do? This is the first of many opportunities you will have in your career to deal with people who are committing ethical violations. These are never comfortable conversations, but my guess is that not only are you are *obligated* to take action, but you will be doing the right thing. Getting guidance from a senior faculty person or (anonymously) a member of the human subjects review board is probably a good idea.

Ultimately, this will be an important story that you'll be able to tell about yourself, like when you're applying to grad school or something.
posted by jasper411 at 8:24 PM on November 27, 2005

he said that the internet is public space and does not require the ethical considerations usually given to human subjects research.

This seems unlikely. Even asking questions on the street requires a human subjects protocol at any credible institution. I would be very surprised if you could do this work without one. That said, there are other issues here, as mentioned above. You're almost certainly violating the terms of service, simply by not using the site "for personal use".

So, if you're concerned about this, do go to the chair of your deparment or to someone you trust to be discreet. And be sure to say that you just need someone to talk to on the issue, and that you're not raising a formal complaint right off the bat. Academic politics can be tricky ( as you know ) and you don't want this to go any faster than you're comfortable with.

And take heart that, ultimately, the human subjects policy is likely to have a whistleblower clause in it; and that people will help you out if this goes south. One hopes, of course, that it needn't come to that.

That said, do sit and think about the possible outcomes here, and how much they really bother you. Is deception a problem, if you aren't caught? Is it a problem if you are caught? To what extent is this "anonymous reporting" just the most efficient way to do this kind of work, and thus justifyable?

I found a good book for you, as well:
Internet Communication and Qualitative Research: A Handbook for Researching Online, by Chris Mann and Fiona Stewart.

Here's a sage quote, from page 55:

Van Gelder described the feelings of women who had been communicating via a national computer netowkrk when they discovered that a group member, who had presented herself as a severely handicapped woman, was in fact an able-bodied male. This persona, konwn as Joan, was adopted when th epsychiatrist discovered that women were much more open and intimate with him when they mistoock his computer identity as female. When his true identity was revealed some women described this experience as 'mind rape, pure and simple' - a cheat and a fraud.

Good luck.
If you'd like, feel free to drop me a line (particularly if you're at Stanford, but otherwise as well).
posted by metaculpa at 8:25 PM on November 27, 2005

Find someone in the department who outranks your supervisor (department chair?), and have a discreet and confidential conversation with him/her. Explain the situation. Explain that you don't wish to alienate your supervisor.

I don't think there's any way of ensuring that this kind of discussion would remain confidential without really really knowing the department politics in a way that no undergrad ever does. What if the dept. chair and the professor don't get along? What if they are close friends? But the same may be true of talking to the HSRB, to some extent...
posted by advil at 8:25 PM on November 27, 2005

On preview: oof, not so much with the spell-check.
Also, Jasper and whatzit both have it, although in different ways.
posted by metaculpa at 8:28 PM on November 27, 2005

I'd say that if all you need to get access to the information in question is an email address, then the people involved would be a bit silly to expect any sort of privacy. (This is one reason why, for instance, you won't find my CV on MeFi profile page.) So, I'm tempted to side with your supervisor there. However, if you have to actively deceive the people involved in order to study them, then I would have problems with that.

In any case, going over the supervisor's head to a committee or a superior is the absolute last thing I'd suggest doing. Getting involved in department politics is not likely to help your academic career. Asking other professors for confidential advice might not be a bad idea. But, at the end of the day, no matter what anyone tells you, you either have an ethical problem with what you're doing, or you don't. If you do, then I'd suggest asking your supervisor to reassign you. At least that way you won't be making any enemies.
posted by epimorph at 8:29 PM on November 27, 2005

If your research method includes use of deception, then it seems it would be at least ethically questionable. Whether or not it's ultimately unethical would probably be, as others have suggested, determined by the ethics standards at your institution for the treatment of human subjects; but at the very least you will be opening your findings to some criticism based on ethical concerns.

Out of curiosity, does your institution have anyone teaching a course on ethics that you could approach for confidential advice?

Also, I was a little curious about your use of the term 'deviant sexuality'. Is this the accepted academic label for the behavior you're studying? At first glance, and obviously to someone not involved in your field of research, it struck me as a term that implies bias, and hints at a lack of objectivity. Again, I'm genuinely curious about whether or not that's a misguided interpretation at my end, rather than an attempt to criticize.
posted by planetthoughtful at 8:30 PM on November 27, 2005

Just to add a couple of things..

If you go to someone in the department, be prepared for frustration. The fact is that other members of the department have more to lose by making a stink than you do. The chair is only the chair for 5 years and then goes back to being Prof. NobodySpecial. And your professor could very well be chair next. Graduate students have far more to lose than you do. (I know a grad student' consulted by an undergrad about a prof's ethics for something far less ethical, and she would not have touched the issue with a ten foot poll. She passed it off to her advisor, who didn't want to get involved). And as others have pointed out, your prof could be friends with any one of these people.

If you decide to do any sort of "reporting" or even asking "Is this really ok?" human subjects is the place to go. If you're really worried, you might set up an anonymous hotmail address and send them an email without any specifics. Just ask what the procedure would be for an undergrad to report his/her advisor, and what the outcome of such reporting would be.

And btw, this:

just the most efficient way to do this kind of work, and thus justifyable

Is ridiculous. Being the most efficient way does not make it more justifiable. Pretty much everyone's research would be more efficient if you didn't have to think about informed consent or possible harm to our research subjects. That doesn't even close to make it ok.

On preview: Planetthoughtful: The social sciences cannot deal with normative questions (questions of what is right, or how things should be), which means that our concepts have nothing to do with whether something is right or acceptable. "Deviant" means that it is disapproved of in the relevant social setting (it deviates from what is consered acceptable conduct). In this case it would mean that society at large disapproves or stigmatizes the behaviour. It does not imply that the researcher using the term believes the behaviour to be wrong.

So for example, I've seen aging studied as a form of deviance because our culture is youth-oriented. Owning a car would be studied as a form of deviance in an amish society. Cheating is a form of deviance in a school etc. etc. Behaviours are not inherently deviant, it's the stigmatization that's attached to the behaviour by others that makes it deviant (which is why studying deviance often includes studying how behaviours come to be stigmatized).

And also on preview: Who cares if they were silly to expect privacy. The point is that a research has to abide by the codes of ethics of his university, his granting agency, and his discipline. This research surely does not.
posted by duck at 8:41 PM on November 27, 2005

Me: just the most efficient way to do this kind of work, and thus justifyable
Duck: Being the most efficient way does not make it more justifiable

I agree, at least in this case. But I do want to make sure anon. has thought about why the prof is going about his research in this way - if only so that he knows better what may be wrong about it. (Which is, in the end, not my judgment to make.)

And also: Christ, can't I spell? I blame my cold, frigid fingers.
posted by metaculpa at 8:50 PM on November 27, 2005

Just to elaborate - one of the reasons that human subject review boards exist is to ensure that researchers are not in a position to decide for themselves what is and isn't ethical in a research project.
I've been on both sides of this question, and reseachers have an inherent conflict of interest. If it was up to the researcher alone, he or she would probably decide that most everything was ethical, partly because reseachers don't intend harm, and partly because dealing with review boards can be a big pain.
But that's all irrelevant. Whether the research is funded or not, review boards are mandatory, because researchers can't be relied upon to be the last word about whether their own projects are ethical.

(PS - I forgot to include the APA ethical code above - see subsection 8)
posted by jasper411 at 8:53 PM on November 27, 2005

Good advice above; here's my $0.02 for "this is clearly unethical" and "go straight to your institution's IRB".

Advil's point is particularly telling: the IRB has what power there is to protect you from whistleblower payback. There are no guarantees, but you are at greater risk if you try to soft-pedal this by going to, say, the dept chair.

Another point: your supervisor must have ethics committee approval for this project (or be in clear and flagrant violation of basic regulations!). Have you seen that document? If your super is doing research not described in that document, or has therein misrepresented what you are doing, that proves the violation of ethics guidelines that you suspect.

As others have said, your super likely has less power than you think, and whistleblowers are as widely lauded as they are avoided. Your chances of a new job with an honest boss increase if you do the right thing here.

Finally, there is always the chance you're wrong, and there's no violation. (From what you've said, it's a vanishingly small chance IMO, but still.) If that's so, you're doing nothing wrong by talking to the IRB, especially since you've already discussed it with your super, who did not deal with you in an appropriate and professional manner.
posted by sennoma at 8:55 PM on November 27, 2005

"Deviant" means that it is disapproved of in the relevant social setting (it deviates from what is consered acceptable conduct)

Thanks for exaplanation, duck. Much appreciated.
posted by planetthoughtful at 9:01 PM on November 27, 2005

I think you're getting solid advice here, and I want to amplify Rothko's comment about your insecurity WRT your position.

You don't need to "show a presence in the department" as an undergrad. You need to get good grades and line up heavy letters o' rec. As far as research goes, show an interest and a willingness to work and you're in the "good" undergrad pile. Publishing would be great, but not worth risking the kind of career ending scandal that may or may not arise out of this situation.

I advise against going over your PI's head, rather I think you should talk about this with some grad students or postdocs that you trust first. They're much more likely to be upfront with you, tell you what you need to know, and keep things under their hats if appropriate.

Consider switching research groups. Your current PI doesnt' have to know the real reason.
posted by Eothele at 9:16 PM on November 27, 2005

I'm a friend of anons and s/he asked me to post a reply from her/him.

Thanks for all the great advice. I just looked through the Terms and Conditions and yes, we are in violation. There is an article that specifies that you cannot share any info without the permission of the person who gave you that info. Since we aren't asking the members, we certainly don't have their permission. Even if we did ask, they wouldn't give it.

To clarify: my supervisor is a grad student working on his degree. The overseeing professor is away on sabbatical. My super told me that he discussed it with the prof and that the prof had no problems.

As far as getting reassigned, that's a no go. I am at a small university and it's either work on this project, or don't get any research experience. I really can't afford to quit.

Deviance: duck hit it right on, but I want to add that deviance in this situation is referring to the fact that if you were to plot sexuality on a bell curve, this particular form would lie at the tail ends. Yes it deviates from the social norm, but more importantly for my research, it deviates significantly from the statistical norm. Still, the term does not imply any moral judgment.

It looks like my next step will be to talk to a prof I feel comfortable with and ask for advice. I may casually bring up (to my super) that I saw the T&C and that we are in violation. I don't think this has passed through any IRB, but I have no idea why it hasn't.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:33 PM on November 27, 2005

I think some very good advice has been given out. When you start graduate school, you typically go through a research ethics seminar where you're asked to consider scenarios such as these. The problem is that there's no clear answer. So this is personal advice, not professional...

My thought is that the above advice is all sound, and the other posters offer many possible courses of action, most of which are very good. In the end, though, it comes down to you, personally. If you really think it's unethical, and if you are the type of person that simply can't stand for that, then hopefully you'll find the courage to do something. If you can live with it, sleep at night, etc., then you're probably going to decide to do that.

Personally, I hope its the former. Personally, I have made a conscious decision that there are certain types of research that I will simply not perform, under any circumstances, regardless the consequences... I'd find a new career and continue being poor for the rest of my life if somebody forced my hand.

Do keep in mind though that there are plenty of people out there who are going to agree with you--scientists who will value your integrity as much, if not more than, your personal ability. I'm one of 'em, for what it's worth.
posted by dsword at 9:47 PM on November 27, 2005

Slight side issue, but, do researchers really use the term "deviant sexuality"? Not something more neutral like "paraphilia" or the like?

My totally unscientific opinion is that, if you're not interacting in them in any way, for instance if you just joined an S&M contacts website and gathered information, as in, you noted that X number of people were male and Y number of people were from the East Coast and so on, that's not research on human subjects.

But the idea that you create a fake profile, and that fake persona then checks out others' profiles, and they know that and check you back in return ... borderline.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 9:58 PM on November 27, 2005

Ambrose: paraphilia is a good term, but not the right one for this particular group.
posted by arcticwoman at 10:08 PM on November 27, 2005

OK I skipped some posts. Ignore me on the "deviant" thing.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 10:11 PM on November 27, 2005

Is it really necessary to have previous research experience to get into a grad program in psych or soc (assuming it's one of those two)? Somehow that seems unlikely to me, but I don't work in those fields. In the other social sciences, though, you can get into any department in the country without having been a research assistant. If anything, I'd suspect -- again, I'm looking outside my field here -- that writing an undergraduate thesis would be substantially more important than doing grunt work for someone else's research. Are you in a thesis program (often an honors or distinction degree)? Can you get into one if you're not?

I guess I mean that I don't see any significant downside to ratting out the grad student you're working for to your school's IRB -- but, again, I work in a different field and maybe in a different country. At the very least, you should be able to check and make certain that it's never been through the IRB. You wouldn't want to ask this dude for a recommendation after you rat him out, but you wouldn't want a recommendation from him, because nobody gives a good goddam what a grad student thinks.

All this assumes you're in the US. I don't have any sense of academic norms -- or of human subjects protections -- in other countries.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:30 PM on November 27, 2005

To clarify: my supervisor is a grad student working on his degree. The overseeing professor is away on sabbatical. My super told me that he discussed it with the prof and that the prof had no problems.

While I was reading this I was saying to myself "I bet this researcher is NOT a professor, only a grad student would be so dumb". The advisor being on sabbatical makes me think he's even more out of line [i]if he's planning on compiling and/or publishing this data as a thesis or article and attributing it to the source or making it clear where it came from without permission[/i]. If it's preliminary research for a more formal study it's different. Still skeevy IMHO.

Because you are the one who has been gathering this info in violation of the sites policies that you agreed to under your false ID, I would raise this with the grad student you work for, tell them you're uncomfortable and try to get out of this situation gracefully because I predict the shit will hit the fan sooner or later on this. Maybe you can just do data entry or maybe you can drop out of the study altogether. You can look for other research opportunities later. Not legal advice, just advice from an ex-grad student. If you can talk to someone closer to the situation confidentially, go for it but be careful.
posted by fshgrl at 10:37 PM on November 27, 2005

There's lots of good advice to think about. You really do need to be careful, I think. Not going through the proper review committees before doing research with animals or people is the stuff ruined careers are made of. Not that your career would be ruined, but it could make a mess you wouldn't want to be caught up in.

At any rate you say that there are few opportunities for research at your institution. You should look into programs at other universities. Many students who go to schools with essentially no in house research opportunities participate in programs at larger universities--sometimes designed just for them. You could spend a summer or even a "school year" semester or quarter (if you can spare the time then) in a program where you'd be doing research more or less full time. These programs can also lead to opportunities in the future (graduate school, etc.)

I would venture to say that practically every large public and private university has at least one of these programs.
posted by sevenless at 10:52 PM on November 27, 2005

Your research is ridiculous. You have no way of verifying anything you're finding out - even that repeated interactions with the same "persona" actually represents interactions with the same human person.

It's also unethical to involve human subjects in any sort of research, observational or interventional, without informed consent. Period. This is why there have been so few major advances in emergency medicine for the last 50 years.

But if I were you I'd worry about issues of validity first.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:57 PM on November 27, 2005

I don't understand what the hand-wringing is about. I'd walk straight into the Ethics Board and report this guy. But, then, I'm the sort who loves confrontation. Perhaps you're not. So, I'll try to put this in a more human perspective.

I'm a member of a private community site full of deviants ( I can assure you that people's lives have been ruined by being outed for something so benign as heavy non-visible tattoos. We also regularly have assholes who sign up with forged credentials and faked photographs so that they can perform "academic" research.

You're talking about human beings, and you're talking about the possible ruin of their lives if your data hygiene is anything less than flawless. Is there a list of people whose profiles you've viewed (I'm guessing so; otherwise, you might repeatedly sample the same one)? What's on that list? Contact information? Who has access to it?

Your ethics board is the body responsible for defining protocols for human subjects data hygiene. If you haven't talked to them, I doubt you're following the protocols. If you aren't following the protocols, you're risking people's livlihoods and happiness so that your grad-student supervisor can advance his career.

Are you seriously waffling over reporting this because you're afraid for your career? Grow some balls and blow the fucking whistle. Hey, whatdyaknow... tomorrow is a school day. Skip lunch, and go talk to somebody about this.

Also, if you're really so afraid for your standing that you can't work up the courage to talk to somebody at your university, the least you can do is contact the administrators of the site and give them the information necessary to shut down your current accounts. You can repeat this as necessary. If you have the list I mentioned above, you really should send too; this allows them to contact the persons you've violated and inform them of the situation.

You should actually do that last part regardless. They have a right to know.

(This, by the way, is one of the many issues that make me thankful to study computer science.)
posted by Netzapper at 11:03 PM on November 27, 2005

I read this in my first-year research methods class: “Go Away”: Participant Objections to Being Studied and the Ethics of Chatroom Research.

I don't necessarily agree with their conclusions (that consent is essentially impossible to get and so we'll have to do without) but it might be useful to you.
posted by shaun at 11:30 PM on November 27, 2005

I don't think this has passed through any IRB, but I have no idea why it hasn't.

That right there, all on its own, is grounds for pretty heavy disciplinary action. You just *cannot* do research on humans without IRB approval. Trying to get around this requirement can be grounds for the end of a research career -- and so it should. Professionally and personally, you need to be OUT of that situation.

I agree with the commenter who said the shit WILL hit the fan over this, and probably sooner rather than later. Cover your ass, and register your concerns with someone with sufficient clout to provide you with splatter protection. You've said you're concerned about your career -- seriously, your career is in more danger if you don't act on this.

(All of that, of course, is quite apart from (what I see as) your obligation as a member of the research community to put a stop to unethical work, and points such as Netzapper's about there being actual people on the other end of your super's foolishness. Others have covered that; I just want to point out that the best thing for you is to go talk to the IRB asap.)

(My bona fides: postdoc, biomed research.)
posted by sennoma at 11:49 PM on November 27, 2005

My opinion is that you should save this thread in case sometime in future this bites you in the ass. Then you will be able to say "Look here, I sought help regarding the ethicality of this research project."

I would cut off the thread just before arcticwoman posted your confirmation that you are infringing on the site's TOS. You have thus confirmed that the project methodology is unethical, ut don't really have any choice but to continue your research.

It's a tough situation, but it's sort of a Les Mes conundrum; it's OK to steal bread to feed your family, yes? So it's OK to compromise academic ethics in order to not end up a persona non grata in your research community and find yourself flipping burgers. Y'know?

So cover your ass. ;-)
posted by solid-one-love at 11:59 PM on November 27, 2005

As far as getting reassigned, that's a no go. I am at a small university and it's either work on this project, or don't get any research experience. I really can't afford to quit.

I find that hard to believe. Is the university so small that this is the only grad student doing research? Were you placed through an organized undergrad research program and that's why you feel you must work on this project? A brief chat with the director of that program telling him or her how uncomfortable you are in the current situation might get you elsewhere.
posted by grouse at 1:14 AM on November 28, 2005

Now that I find out it's a grad student: Report them. The power relationship is nearly as existent as you think it is. It's something that's very hard to see as an undergrad, but your grad student supervisor can do pretty much nothing to harm your career. All he can do is remove you from this particular project (from which you should run, not walk, regardless).

Now as for your research experience and department visibility.. Unlike some others, who've said that undergrads don't need research experience I do think it's a good idea to be visible in the department and to get some research experience (You're seen this, right?). Visibility is just a matter of being present. So be in the building as much as you can. Go to office hours, go to departmental events.

For research experience, I'm guessing you were placed in this research by some organized program, like grouse suggested, which would explain why you feel like this is your only research option. That program will have a coordinator (probably someone who coordinates the program across all the departments). Go to that person, explain what the research is doing and that you've read the ASA and APA ethical guidelines and you feel that it violates both, and further that it violates the terms of service of the website (thus further violating ASA and APA guidelines, since the terms explicitly deny consent). They may be able to get you on another project (I'm sure one of the other grad students would be happy to have a second research assistant added, even mid-year).

If they can't, that doesn't mean you can't get research experience. Either write a thesis, or do a "reading and research" / "independent study" course. You'll have to find a professor to supervise either, but that just puts you in a position to build a relationship with a prof, which is exactly what you want anyway. I know everything feels like your only opportunity at this stage in your career, but it's really not.
posted by duck at 4:02 AM on November 28, 2005

To clarify: my supervisor is a grad student working on his degree. The overseeing professor is away on sabbatical. My super told me that he discussed it with the prof and that the prof had no problems.

That explains so much!
You know, if you quit this study, for the reasons of it being unethical, that is eventually going to be worth SO much more than research experience on a project which, if it ever gets published at all, which I doubt, is going to end up getting in trouble for this very fact. Especially if you're the one pointing out the problem. If you can get them to change the way the research is done, that would be ultimately awesome, but otherwise, quit. Try to find someone higher up in the department to back you up, or a student advisor. It shouldn't be hard, you have a good case. I do feel sorry for the grad student you're working for, because they clearly don't realize that they're heading in the wrong direction, but if you point it out to someone, you are NOT going to be the one who gets in trouble.
posted by easternblot at 6:03 AM on November 28, 2005

try to get out of this situation gracefully because I predict the shit will hit the fan sooner or later on this.

Yup. Even if you were tempted to succumb to the ethics-free approach ("it's OK to compromise academic ethics in order to not end up a persona non grata in your research community"), it wouldn't do you any good: this is going to wind up in a very bad place, and you don't want to be there. Get out now, as gracefully as you can, and you'll be in a position like Jack Straw is in now ("I told Blair not to invade...").
posted by languagehat at 6:06 AM on November 28, 2005

ikkyu2 writes "Your research is ridiculous. You have no way of verifying anything you're finding out - even that repeated interactions with the same 'persona' actually represents interactions with the same human person."

The whole dhoyt set up proves this.
posted by Mitheral at 8:03 AM on November 28, 2005

Another thing to make note of is that when you apply to grad school, you'll be listing your research experience and potentially discussing it in your essay... so what happens if your interviewer has looked it up and noted that the research was unethical? So much better to be able to discuss what you did in that situation, as opposed to either leaving it off your resume (which is the reason you're working on the project in the first place), or saying, "Oh yeah, I had my suspicions about that, but I continued on because I didn't want to disrupt the project."
posted by xo at 8:49 AM on November 28, 2005

I should probably tone down my answer. "Ridiculous" is a stronger word than I meant to use. A young scientist trying to figure out how to deal with ethics issues certainly isn't worthy of ridicule; rather, that person should be commended for thinking so clearly at the beginning of her career.

I would rephrase my answer to point out that when validity concerns are this severe, they have serious ethical implications. In this case, I believe that the potential validity issues render it impossible to conduct the study in accordance with accepted ethical standards for research conduct.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:09 PM on November 28, 2005


Oh boy.

I'm a member of a group devoted to "deviant" (if we must use that ridiculous term) sexuality. BDSM, specifically.

I only just today ended a week long, very bitter exchange between myself and several other members of the group over a plan to do something similar to what you describe.

Now, in the case in question, the newcomer wasn't doing research; rather, s/he was (according to one version of the story; never could find out for sure whether it was true) supposed to be gathering information so that she could make a recommendation in a civil court case.

During the course of this debate, one of the few things I and the other side agreed upon was that if the shrink was to visit in any official capacity and the members of the group were not told about it ahead of time, it would be a major violation of the organization's rules and community etiquette. I mean, it wouldn't be at all surprising if the group broke up over something like this. The debate alone was enough to cost me a friendship or two.

So if you were to go through with this, you should expect an extremely negative reaction when your duplicity is discovered. No one will sue because they won't want to acknowledge publicly that they were members of the group, but they'll certainly hurl a lot of four letter words.

Now, granted, what you're proposing - some covert investigation by a researcher - is not nearly as frightening as a visit from an agent of the judicial system In fact, one researcher indicated that she wanted to attend some of our gatherings to study us, and we thought that - with proper guarantees of anonymity and so forth - this would be great. However, if someone did the same thing without informing us, then and we then found out about it later, we'd be supremely pissed. Not too long ago, a book about kink in this region hit the shelves. A couple people I know were described in the book, though their names were changed. They were not at all happy.

For the sake of common decency... just talk to these people and ask them for permission to study them. I'll bet a lot of them answer "yes."
posted by Clay201 at 9:49 PM on November 28, 2005

An update:

My friend "A" ended up confronting the masters student again and explained to him a lot of the points that were made in this thread. He was still not willing to look into it, so A decided to talk to a prof that she trusts. It took her a couple of days to actually find a prof with time to talk to to her, and in that time she spoke again to the grad student. He asked her if she wanted him to look into ethics, but when she said "yes" he was surprised and insincere. So A talked to a prof (who turned out to be on the grad student's committee, oops!) and afterward she felt much better about the whole situation. They decided to give the grad student the chance to look into ethics himself, but if he doesn't do this or if he doesn't do it properly, the prof is going to call a halt to the entire project.
The next day the grad student surprised her with the paperwork required to seek ethics approval. A asked to be a part of the process (to make sure he doesn't understate the problems, and of course for the experience) and they are filling out the papers together next week. Apparantly he took A more seriously than she had interpreted, and a gentle nudge from a certain prof on his committee decided it. So all in all, it looks like an ideal situation for everyone.

It helped a lot for A to have validation from other students/academics/researchers. I'm a different major than she, and I know how this stuff is dealt with in my department, but we were beginning to think that maybe her peers just didn't take the internet seriously. The support from this thread is what really gave her the courage to stand up.

I'll post an update on MeTa in a few weeks when we know how the ethics review went. Once again, merci beaucoup.
posted by arcticwoman at 9:39 AM on December 2, 2005

brilliant! :o)
posted by andrew cooke at 1:28 PM on December 2, 2005

Ethics problems are often best answered by switching the subject and object. Apply to your self and a regular dating site like or something like it. Like that swell guy/girl? Suprise! Its all fake!
posted by Ironmouth at 9:58 PM on December 6, 2005

I can't antagonize my supervisor, though, because I can't afford to sacrifice this position.

Actually, you can. Not bringing ethical problems to someone because you may be harmed in doing so isn't ethical. No one said doing the right thing is easy in the short term. In fact, its extremely hard. It usually is easier in the long term.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:01 PM on December 6, 2005

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