The rapid growth of the Internet has been accompanied by a growth in the number and types of virtual environments supporting computer-mediated communication. This was soon followed by interest in using these virtual environments for research purposes: the recruitment of research participants, the conduct of research, and the study of virtual environments. Early research using virtual environments raised a number of ethical issues and debates. As early as 1996 a forum in the The Information Society (volume 12, issue 2) was devoted to ethical issues in conducting social science research online. The debate has continued with more recent collaborative attempts to develop guidelines for ethical research online (Ess & AoIR ethics working committee, 2002; Frankel & Siang, 1999). In this article we explore contemporary ethical issues associated with conducting research online.
Public Vs. Private Space
Research online can take place within a range of virtual environments that vary in terms of purpose, synchronicity, access, number of users, and norms. A major issue in developing ethical research procedures for use within a particular virtual environment is determining whether the setting represents a private or public “space.” Various attempts have been made to distinguish between the public and the private in virtual environments (see, e.g., Lessig, 1995), but little agreement has been reached. There are currently no clear guidelines for researchers on what constitutes private vs. public space in virtual environments, yet the distinction is important, as it affects the rights of participants to be advised of the research and to give or withhold their informed consent.
The defining of public vs. private space cannot be reduced to the single dimension of accessibility to the virtual environment. Interactions that occur within publicly accessible virtual environments may be perceived by participants to be private. Newsgroups can be accessed without restriction, yet newsgroup postings can be, and frequently are, high in self-disclosure and are perceived by many users to be private (Witmer, 1997). Similarly, support groups on sensitive issues may be conducted in publicly accessible sites with participants adhering to norms of confidentiality and privacy (Elgesem, 2002).
Some ethical codes exempt naturalistic observations and archival research from requiring informed consent where no harm or distress is likely to come to those researched and where their confidentiality is protected. It has been argued that the decision not to inform members of online groups about research conducted on the group has the advantage of the research being “unobtrusive” (Langer & Beckman, 2005). Others, while acknowledging the benefits of naturalistic observation, regard this approach as placing researchers in a position “little better than spies” (Bakardjieva & Feenberg, 2001, p. 234). King (1996) highlighted the potential for psychological harm to members of online groups where research is conducted and published without the prior knowledge and informed consent of participants. Where there has been the expectation of privacy within a group (however misinformed that expectation may be) the individual may feel violated upon hearing of, or reading, the results of that research.