Acting ethically with approval: Venturing into online research

A School of Education seminar presented on Wednesday, December 5th, 2018 by Dr Rachael Adlington

Research that uses the internet pushes many ethical boundaries and challenges traditional models of ethical research. This is especially so for research that involves human-like subjects, such as avatars and bots, or the products of humans located in the public domain. While it is important to consider ethics in any research and many issues pertinent to offline studies hold true for their online counterparts, the shift to the online realm has necessitated fresh thinking on what it means to act in an ethical manner. Rethinking occurs around three points of tension, identified by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) Ethics Working Committee;

  • the concept of research on human subjects
  • notions of ‘personhood’
  • and definitions of privacy.

This seminar will explore these tension points in light of underpinning ethical principles: the consideration of the people involved in the production of data; harm minimization; and, the proportional obligation of the researcher to protect the ‘human element’ of the study.

As a starting point for this venture in to the complex realm of online research, Dr Rachael Adlington will articulate what constitutes online research. Then, she will focus in on one type of inquiry - research involving online texts. She will discuss some of the different approaches that scholars take to text analysis and how they view and manage ethical considerations. Finally, Rachael will argue for the need to act ethically to honour and protect the ‘human element’ in research that does not involve humans or human contact, and give some examples of how this ethical action may be taken at different points of the inquiry process.