Conceptual, Methodological, and Ethical Challenges of Internet-Based Data Collection

Conceptual, Methodological, and Ethical Challenges of Internet-Based Data Collection

Jonathan K. Lee (Suffolk University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-014-1.ch033
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Abstract

The growth in multimedia technology has revolutionized the way people interact with computer systems. From personal software to business systems and pedagogic applications, multimedia technology is opening up new pathways to increase the efficiency of existing systems. However, the utilization and implementation of new technologies has been occurring at such a rapid pace that theory and research has been unable to keep up. This is particularly evident with data collection methods in the social sciences. With the growth in use of the Internet passing the 1 billion user mark in 2006 (Internet Usage Statistics, 2006), social scientists are turning to the Internet for data collection purposes in increasing numbers (few, if any, advances have revolutionized data collection more than the use of the Internet). Often referred to as Internet-based research, Web-based research, and cyberresearch, this mode of data collection refers to the administration of questionnaires and acquisition of response data in an automated manner via the World Wide Web. Collecting participant responses was a task that once required hours of direct interaction, created problems in scheduling, and limited the diversity of the population being studied. Now data collection can be automated and conducted at any time with increased efficiency (MacWhinney, 2000) and at reduced costs (Cobanoglu, Warde, & Moreo, 2001). Moreover, depending on the nature of the research, the questionnaire can be delivered to Internet users around the world; additionally, research can be targeted to specific populations that have traditionally been underrepresented in the research literature (Im & Chee, 2004; Mathy, Schillace, Coleman, & Berquist, 2002). However, the advantages of using the Internet as a medium for data collection are not without their shortcomings. Theory has not been able to keep up with the proliferation of Internet-based research projects. Further, creative methodologies to facilitate data collection are being proposed in the empirical literature with increased frequency, raising questions about the construct validity of associated studies. The creation of new research methodologies has led to the need for new ethical guidelines for the protection of Internet research subjects, and thus are posing new challenges for research review boards at many institutions (Flanagan, 1999). Academic disciplines that currently use the Internet as a vehicle for data collection are multifarious, and a discussion of the major issues relevant to each is beyond the scope of this article. Thus, for the sake of brevity, and because it is the discipline of which our knowledge is the most up to date, we will limit our discussion to the specific discipline of psychology, as its wide range of methodologies allow for examples of different challenges relevant to other areas of research. It is important for the reader to note that these issues are similar across the many fields that have implemented Internet-based data collection models for empirical research. This article will provide a summary of the conceptual, methodological, and ethical challenges for the researcher considering the Internet as a tool for data collection and will make suggestions for the ethical and effective implementation of such studies. Due to its brief length, the depth of our discussion is neither expansive nor comprehensive; rather we will focus on what we feel are the key issues for the nascent cyberresearcher. Readers interested in a comprehensive review of this topic are directed to Birnbaum (2000).
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Introduction

The growth in multimedia technology has revolutionized the way people interact with computer systems. From personal software to business systems and pedagogic applications, multimedia technology is opening up new pathways to increase the efficiency of existing systems. However, the utilization and implementation of new technologies has been occurring at such a rapid pace that theory and research has been unable to keep up. This is particularly evident with data collection methods in the social sciences.

With the growth in use of the Internet passing the 1 billion user mark in 2006 (Internet Usage Statistics, 2006), social scientists are turning to the Internet for data collection purposes in increasing numbers (few, if any, advances have revolutionized data collection more than the use of the Internet). Often referred to as Internet-based research, Web-based research, and cyberresearch, this mode of data collection refers to the administration of questionnaires and acquisition of response data in an automated manner via the World Wide Web.

Collecting participant responses was a task that once required hours of direct interaction, created problems in scheduling, and limited the diversity of the population being studied. Now data collection can be automated and conducted at any time with increased efficiency (MacWhinney, 2000) and at reduced costs (Cobanoglu, Warde, & Moreo, 2001). Moreover, depending on the nature of the research, the questionnaire can be delivered to Internet users around the world; additionally, research can be targeted to specific populations that have traditionally been underrepresented in the research literature (Im & Chee, 2004; Mathy, Schillace, Coleman, & Berquist, 2002). However, the advantages of using the Internet as a medium for data collection are not without their shortcomings. Theory has not been able to keep up with the proliferation of Internet-based research projects. Further, creative methodologies to facilitate data collection are being proposed in the empirical literature with increased frequency, raising questions about the construct validity of associated studies. The creation of new research methodologies has led to the need for new ethical guidelines for the protection of Internet research subjects, and thus are posing new challenges for research review boards at many institutions (Flanagan, 1999).

Academic disciplines that currently use the Internet as a vehicle for data collection are multifarious, and a discussion of the major issues relevant to each is beyond the scope of this article. Thus, for the sake of brevity, and because it is the discipline of which our knowledge is the most up to date, we will limit our discussion to the specific discipline of psychology, as its wide range of methodologies allow for examples of different challenges relevant to other areas of research. It is important for the reader to note that these issues are similar across the many fields that have implemented Internet-based data collection models for empirical research. This article will provide a summary of the conceptual, methodological, and ethical challenges for the researcher considering the Internet as a tool for data collection and will make suggestions for the ethical and effective implementation of such studies. Due to its brief length, the depth of our discussion is neither expansive nor comprehensive; rather we will focus on what we feel are the key issues for the nascent cyberresearcher. Readers interested in a comprehensive review of this topic are directed to Birnbaum (2000).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Internet-Based Data Collection: Also known as cyberresearch or Web-based data collection, this is an evolving type of research methodology that utilizes the Internet as a medium for the collection of data.

Passive Cybersurvey: Questionnaires where the individual is self-selected to participate. With the passive cybersurvey method, the questionnaire is posted on a Web site and individuals visiting the site can decide whether or not to participate.

Cyberethnography: Online ethnographic research. This type of research is action-oriented and includes interactive interviews and participant observation, usually completed in a chat room or through an instant messenger program.

Cybersurvey: The administration of surveys or questionnaires via the Internet. This includes distribution of the questionnaire by e-mail or electronic mailing lists, or posting the survey on a Web page for people to complete. Cybersurvey can be either active or passive.

Active Cybersurvey: The process of randomly selecting individuals from an e-mail list or chat room to actively solicit participation in a research study.

Multimethod Cyberresearch: A combination of cybersurvey and cyberethnography, which thus incorporates quantitative and qualitative methods.

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