Digital research ethics – some considerations …

There are a number of different ways in which social media can be used in academic research and researcher development. Different applications and strategies will be relevant to different disciplines and research methodologies; however, what will apply to everyone are digital research ethics. In this post I discuss the three major ethical implications raised in my PhD research: informed consent, access & data protection.

The issue of ‘lurking’ & informed consent

The relative newness of these methods of data collection has meant that there is no clear cut mode of analysing data. Brace-Govan (2003) and Hara et al (2000) offer views on how to track online behaviour. However, it has sparked a debate over the ethics of this type of research (Bryman, 2004; Eysenbach and Till, 2001; Brownlow and O’Dell, 2002). Issues relating to privacy, confidentiality and informed consent become increasingly salient when using these methods. Is it ethical to ‘lurk’ as a participant on publicly owned message boards and use comments that the other participants deemed to be private within a research project (Quinnell, 2010)?

My immediate reaction to that would be no, it isn’t. I argued within my thesis that “the creation and use of my own site specifically as a research tool was intended to remove concerns related to informed consent, as participants who came to the site were informed on arrival of the research, the purpose of the discussion boards and the fact that any comments they added might be used within my study” (Quinnell, 2010:75).

If you choose to participate in other discussions you will need to make your role as a researcher very clear to all those involved, and if you wish to use some of their comments or information in your work you should approach them individually to gain consent. Summaries of main themes are acceptable but quoting without consent could be deemed not. There is an argument that could be made relating to the fact that the information is in the public domain: however, it was not intended to be used for research purposes.

Questions relating to access; by employing social media / online do you restrict or enable your population sample

There are arguments for both sides of this statement. This article from the Wall Street Journal Health illustrates how social media applications increased participation in that particular study. I noted in my own work that social media had this potential because “people could answer questions / questionnaires from wherever they can access the internet, whenever was convenient” (Quinnell, 2010:75).

However, what happens when you are working with people in less developed countries, as many social scientists, particularly geographers, who may have limited internet access or electricity supplies. I believe this is still doable; with regards to my own work I focused on international organisations rather than end user evaluations. I was not overly concerned that use of this technology would close down the space for African organisations to participate, in the end my data showed this to be true but it is something to be mindful of. If you are looking at marginalised or minority groups it is not ethical to marginalise them further. The use of technology within research should enable you to be more inclusive.

Data protection

This is probably the biggest ethical concern when undertaking digital research. Within the UK all data must be stored and retained with respect to the conditions laid out in the UK Data Protection Act 1998. Traditional data collection methods were easier to keep anonymous and to store in such a way that they could not get into the public domain. In order to protect my digital data I ensured that everything was encrypted and password protected. All visitors to my message-boards had to make accounts before they could post or be part of the discussion – this is another way of dealing with the issue of informed consent. I kept the majority of databases where I held records of information offline and once everything was completed I removed the site. That may seem a bit extreme after all my hours of hard work; however, I felt this was the best way to ensure that the information could not be used in any other way. I offered feedback to all those involved and gave them contact details so they could ask any questions after submission. The Digital Curation Centre offers a range of advice, information and training on how to protect your data and other issues related to digital data and I would recommend paying their site a visit.

As stated at the top of this post the relative newness of this research area means that there are no hard and fast rules on digital research ethics; however, as more and more of us are involved in digital research we are able to feedback about issues as new ways of thinking are being developed. I would also direct you to the e-research manifesto created by the Digital Social research Centre at Oxford University and the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities at the University of Amsterdam.


Brace-Govan, J. (2003), A method to track discussion forum activity; the Moderators’ Assessment Matrix. Internet and Higher Education, 6, 303-325.

Brownlow, C. & O’Dell, L. (2002), Ethical Issues for Qualitative Research in Online Communities. Disability and Society, 17, 685-694.

Bryman, A. (2004), Social research methods (2nd edition), Oxford, OUP.

Eysenbach, G. & Till, J. E. (2001), Ethical issues inqualitative research on internet communities British Medical Journal, 323, 1103 – 1105.

Hara, H., Bonk, C. J., et al. (2000), Content analysis of online discussion in an applied educational psychology. Instructional Science 28, 115-152.

Quinnell, S-L. (2010), Building Capacity for Biosafety in Africa: Networks of Science, Aid & Development in the Implementation of Multi-Lateral Environmental Agreements, PhD Thesis, King’s College London, UK.

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Sarah-Louise Quinnell

Dr. Sarah-Louise Quinnell is the E-Learning Lead Technologist for Floream Partnerships she works on a portfolio of e-learning projects in partnership with Google, International Olympic Committee and the Institute of Digital Marketing.

She is also a researcher affiliated to the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities.

All views are her own and do not necessarily represent her employer's views or policies.

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I would disagree with your rationale re 1. The precedent is “could you study letters to the editor in a newspaper as these are in a public space. And the answer is yes. The only difference for a non password protected message board- and this is a big difference- is that it is easy to say on one that you would like to undertake research…this is not so easy on newspaper letters to the editor. Because it is so easy, it should be done. Point 2. I agree its not ok to marginalise a vulnerable population further. But theres a… Read more »

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