Blogging to grow ideas: weblog research ethics

by Lilia Efimova on 12 June 2009

This piece is from my dissertation. It is a reconstruction of events, readings and weblog posts that shaped my understanding of the research ethics in relation to my PhD research.

I put it online for two purposes:

  • as an illustration of how weblog is used at the different stages of developing PhD ideas discussed in the Chapter 3 of my dissertation (where this piece appears) and in the Hypertext paper
  • as an annotated view into the ethical issues I struggled with in my dissertation

***

Spring 2004. It’s still early in my PhD research and I have not give much thought to ethical questions of doing it. What I did so far was relatively unproblematic: invite people to participate and anonymise the responses; no need to deal with formal requirements for an informed consent.

I work on a paper that uses conversation from my own weblog community as an example. While doing it I realise that my previous research experiences do not provide any guidelines about using and quoting publicly available weblog data in a publication.

27 April 2004 Weblog research ethics

  • In this post I do not mention the paper, but I reflect on the dilemmas I face working on it, asking “what would you do when using quotes or stories from public weblogs as examples in your research?” that further breaks into three questions:
    • Do you inform people that you study them?
    • Do you quote anonymously or with attribution?
    • Do you ask for permission?
  • I ask for a feedback and also inform the readers “once you are reading this post you are somehow on my radar – beware, I may be studying your weblog :)”

A few people leave comments to the post or provide input in their weblogs while linking back.

29 April 2004 Weblog research ethics (2)

  • I summarise the responses:
    • Different opinions about informing the participants and asking for permission; main criteria used is whether weblogs could be considered a publication and treated as such.
    • In respect to quoting: distinction between weblog as a data source and as an information source (similar to any other publication) and protecting privacy and recognising the authorship as a researcher responsibilities.
  • I also hint about my feelings in respect to a suggestion of not citing weblogs as a supporting source by articulating that most of my own learning comes from weblogs and not academic publications.

The discussion continues in several weblogs.

16 May 2004 Weblog research ethics (3)

  • This post includes links to some of the follow-up discussion, examples of choices by others, and a reference to the ethics guidelines of Association of Internet Research.

Summer-Autumn 2004. I make choices for the paper and move on. After seeing references to the Association of Internet Research (AOIR) in different contexts I arrange for coming to its annual conference.

18 September 2004 AOIR 5.0. Workshop on qualitative research

  • This post includes notes from the workshop on multiple topics. I also realise that “although I do internet research, this is not (yet?) my scientific community – unfamiliar names, methods, frames of reference… It feels like discovering the whole new world.”
  • My notes in respect to the ethical issues show discovering the complexity of the subject, for example, realising that “private spaces in public” should not be treated as a publication even if the format suggests so.

Spring 2005. I read a lot on ethnography and write many posts attempting to make sense of the role blogging  plays in my research.

4 May 2005 Being researched (2)

  • This is a follow-up on another post where I report on discovering weblogs of students who were studying me as part of their assignment. I reflect on the irony of being researcher who is researched and my uneasy feelings of discovering something that was supposed to be private. I relate my experience to the issues of “private spaces in public”.

Summer 2005. I continue my exploration of the methodological challenges that arise at an intersection between blogging and research, giving a talk about the topic at a research institute and writing a proposal for the next AOIR conference. The study of weblogs in Microsoft in July-September provides an another opportunity to make ethical choices. In October I present my work at the AOIR conference and participate in a workshop on ethics of online research, where I pick up additional themes and a few references.

12 October 2005 Good research…

  • I write about being “in the middle of post-AOIR thinking on research methodologies, ethics and researcher’s responsibilities”, but only share a quote from the paper on ethics by Annette Markham (2006).

19 October 2005 On the role of theory, researcher accountability and translation

  • This is a follow-up on an earlier post on the role of the theory in research: I pick up a reader comment to articulate my beliefs about the researcher accountability, adding in a footnote “Heavily influenced by conversations at AOIR”.

Spring-summer 2006. After disengaging from PhD work for a while due to other obligations, I work on multiple versions of the paper that presents the Microsoft study results (Efimova & Grudin, 2007, also reported in the chapter 6). There I make an implicit choice of not creating an anonymised persona for each of the respondents that have to be justified; as an input I read a collection of essays on the politics of ethnography (Brettell, 1993) mentioned at a AOIR ethics workshop.

11 July 2006 When they read what we write: respondent identification

  • I bring together my experiences as a participant in someone else’s research and as a researcher (Microsoft study) to suggest that “sometimes you don’t need a name to recognise that the story told in the research report is associated with a specific person“. I argue that person-centric narratives of weblogs make this situation very likely and relate it to my choice of not creating anonymised personas.
  • I recommend Brettel (1993) for an in-depth reading on the topic and promise to “blog it one day“.

Summer 2007. After my maternity leave I get into the final stage of the research, where the work done so far should be integrated into the dissertation.

7 July 2007 Bibliography conventions when writing on weblogs

  • I use the examples from other publications to discuss practical question of citing weblogs in my dissertation: distinguishing between different types of citations (weblog as a data source vs. as a reference) via citation placement and formatting.

Summer-autumn 2007. I work on the methodology chapter. Although I post sections of the draft to my weblog, the section on ethics doesn’t appear there. Partly because it heavily uses the insights already covered in the weblog, but also because I’m not happy with the way those are integrated.

Summer 2008. While working on this example I get a better idea what has do be changed in the ethics section and write on Twitter: “wanted to use a section from the Methodology chapter to illustrate something else. Now rewriting it” .

At the same time I work on a paper, on my choices for integrating blogging in the dissertation text, that has a section on ethical choices of representing bloggers (Efimova, 2008). While working on the paper I reread some of the essays on the politics of ethnography.

3 September 2008 Bloggers as public intellectuals and writing about them in a research report

  • I blog on the parallels between the ethical challenges of presenting the results of a study of academics in one of the essays (Sheehan, 1993) and those that I face in my own work. The quotes I include, and the discussion of them, are important for my thinking on the issue, but they are tangential to the paper.

September 2008. As soon as I finish the paper I go back to the Methodology chapter and reuse the paper text to rewrite the section on ethics, now close to its final version.

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