Despite positive aspects of online forums, very little is made known of the practical issues of using online forums for data collection and analysis. This chapter describes the issues encountered in collection and analysis of data in blog forums. Although, this was a qualitative-quantitative study, the focus of this chapter will be on its qualitative aspect. Throughout the study, the researchers were challenged to ensure quality and trustworthiness of the study ranging from data collection procedures to serious ethical dilemmas. Two practical issues related to credibility were identified: naturally occurring data and automatic transcripts. An issue related to dependability was on deciding the language categories identified in the data and the choice of analytical methods for the study. It was also observed that blog interactions were individualized and therefore, may not be generalizable in other contexts. The analysis of these issues suggests several implications for future researchers on online forums as a qualitative data collection method.
The advancement of the internet has made it possible for people to travel through cyberspace to partake in communication. The internet has been perceived to foster a harmonious virtual community that supports interaction at their convenience-without the physical presence of others (Tu & McIsaac, 2002). Studies report that electronic data for qualitative research are feasible for analytical procedures with decreased human errors (Curl & Robinson, 1994; Lakeman, 1997; Stanton, 1998). However, there exist no standardized guidelines for human subject protection in internet research (Frankel & Siang, 1999; U.S. Department of Health and Human Services [USDHHS], 2001).
In general, guidelines in conducting internet based research falls into the areas of confidentiality, integrity, authentication, and availability (Kinkus, 2002). According to Kinkus (2002), confidentiality refers to whether or not information can be accessed by unauthorized parties, while integrity is the protection of data against unauthorized changes as incidents of hacking can threaten the integrity of databases. Authentication means that users are who they claim to be, and availability means that resources are accessible by authorized parties. With these four areas, privacy is the most important aspect of computer security (Kinkus, 2002). Even when users think that they have nothing to hide when they are registering with an online forum site, privacy on the internet is important for protecting personal information, whether sensitive or otherwise. The reason is that even small pieces of related information from different sources can be easily linked together to form important information that some industries want to know (USDHHS, 2001).
Among the various forms of electronic data, online forums such as blogs are used because they allow asynchronous interactions among participants who can join online forums at a time convenient to them. This is in contrast with synchronous online interaction such as chat rooms that required participations to actively take part and give immediate response to an interaction. Asynchronous online forums have been reported to be observable, relatively easy to use, accessible, and safe (Anderson & Kanuka, 1997; Hsiung, 2000). In addition, in comparison with face-to-face interaction, participants of online forums experience a sense of social equality which allows reticent participants to discuss issues more comfortably and feel less threatened (Herring, 1999).
As online forums require users to register themselves as participants with passwords, this allows confidentiality and provides reliability of data (Im & Chee, 2006). Besides, data from online forums are safer compared to other types of internet data that are readily accessible to the public without passwords (Kollock & Smith, 1999; Saba & McCormick, 2001). In addition, as research in online forums is conducted over a period of time, researchers do not have to meet deadlines. This gives researchers the opportunity to modify the technicalities of administering their study, and subsequently reduces the burden of synchronous participation and time pressure (Kollock & Smith, 1999; Saba & McCormick, 2001).
This chapter describes the qualitative research issues in a study on the interactive practices in blog forums relating to the methodology used to collect and analyze data. It also deals with the problems faced by the researchers and argues for and justify against established criteria of credibility, dependability, confirmability, and transferability of conducting an online research. It hopes to draw implications for the future use of online forums as a qualitative research method which may interest researchers participating in online studies, especially, those dealing with online qualitative data.