Research ethics

This is a slightly modified excerpt from my dissertation about the research ethics. Links and references to be added. [Update: see also final version of the dissertation]

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Annette Markham (2006) suggests that ethical choices in research go beyond the issues of privacy, anonymity and informed consent; ethics serves as a compass that guides decisions throughout one’s research. For me ethical choices start from the question of whom the research results should serve. The driving force behind my research is an opportunity to go beyond academic settings.

My priorities of bringing research back to practice result in treating my respondents as co-researchers and as an audience to present the results. However, research reports shaped by the conventions of academic writing are not necessarily intended to be read by their participants. Since most academic texts are written for peers, they might produce unexpected outcomes when become accessible for the people studied, as papers in a collection “When they read what we write” (Brettell, 1993) vividly illustrate. Considering the participants of my research as readers of the finished work has direct implications for choices of how to represent them in the text.

Bloggers participating in my studies are public figures. They write in public spaces, often using their names and sharing professional affiliations. They also share traces of their thinking with anyone potentially interested rather than a small group of family and friends. When blogging I quote their words without worries about the implications of bringing them to audiences different from their own; often I hear that pointing others to their ideas is appreciated. I comment on their words knowing that it is easy to find that I did so and to follow-up on any misrepresentation; that the readers are likely to click through the links to find more about relevant contexts and history.

Studying practices of other bloggers next to being one myself puts me in the middle of two conflicting practices when representing them in my reports. In the blogging world the rule is to attribute one’s words, ideally linking to the original post, while in the research world the rule is to anonymise to protect privacy of the respondents.

As a starting point to resolve this problem I use ethical recommendation from the Association of Internet Research (Ess & the AoIR ethics working committee, 2002): I treat bloggers as authors of publicly available texts and explicitly attribute weblog posts to them. Next to being aligned with practices in blogging communities I study, this approach allows me to honour bloggers as public intellectuals, who similar to academics “earn their living in large part through their ideas” (Sheehan, 1993, p.81).

However, next to public weblogs I also use data sources not easily available for others (e.g. interviews, participant observation or patterns in weblog data), so the need to protect the participants is still there. While weblog text is public and the blogging patterns could be easily discovered from it, aggregating and visualising those patterns adds an additional layer of information and it is not necessary of interest of the participant to share it publicly. As a result, the visualisations of patterns in personal blogging practices in my dissertations are treated in two different ways: when attribution to the real person is unavoidable or essential for an interpretation, permissions to include names and links were acquired, in all other cases visualisations are anonymised.

Weblogs also provide an extended visibility for their authors, who then could be recognised by specific details in their practices or opinions even if name is not provided, creating a challenge when using pseudonyms while reporting on sensitive issues. Having publicly known “signature” statements next to the responses on more sensitive issues could result in undesired implications for the respondents. In this case I take an approach similar to the one described by Sheehan (1993), representing bloggers through fragments that could not be connected to a single person by attributing some words and citing anonymously in other cases.