Developing a geographers' agenda ...
Progress in Human Geography 31(5) (2007) pp. 654���674 �� 2007 SAGE Publications DOI: 10.1177/0309132507081496 Developing a geographers��� agenda for online research ethics Clare Madge* Department of Geography, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK Abstract: This paper explores and advances the debate surrounding online research ethics. The use of internet-mediated research using online research methods has increased signifi cantly in recent years raising the issue of online research ethics. Obviously, many ethical issues of onsite research are directly translatable to the online context, but there is also a need for existing ethical principles to be examined in the light of these new virtual research strategies. Five key issues of ethical conduct are commonly identifi ed in the literature pertaining to online research ethics: informed consent, confi dentiality, privacy, debriefi ng and netiquette. These are the issues that are most commonly discussed in procedural ethical guidelines for online research. However, this paper proposes that given the recent increased formal regulation and research governance over research ethics in many countries, it is important that discussion of such issues continues as an embedded part of professional self-regulation and procedural ethical guidelines are used as creative forums for refl exive debate rather than simply being routinely applied by bureaucratic ethics committees. Finally, in problematizing the role of procedural online ethical guidelines, the conclusions explore how geographers can contribute to the future debate about online research ethics. Key words: confi dentiality, debriefi ng, informed consent, netiquette, online research ethics, privacy, research governance. *Email: email@example.com �� I Introduction Ethics is on the agenda in geography and much time and effort has been spent in recent years exploring a variety of ethical issues and approaches. This tranche of work has proliferated in debates surrounding pedagogy (Hay, 1998a Kearns et al., 1998 Matthews et al., 1998 Vujakovic and Bullard, 2001 Epprecht, 2004 Jarosz, 2004 Howitt, 2005a Israel and Hay, 2006), political commitment and social justice (Hay and Foley, 1998 Cloke, 2002 Beaumont et al.,2005 Valentine, 2005 Davies, 2006), not to mention the spatial implications of ethical commitments and the general moral progress of the discipline (Smith, 2000 2001 Cutchin, 2002 Lee and Smith, 2004). More recently, the development of more relational modes of understanding ethics and responsibilities has been the focus of attention (Popke, 2003 2006 Barnett, 2005 Brock, 2005). This broad range of re- search has resulted in Richards (2004) arguing that ethics may be the arena that can draw together human and physical geography
Clare Madge: Developing a geographers��� agenda for online research ethics 655 and this has become most apparent in the arena of research ethics. Here there has been a proliferation of work exploring moral obligations to the environment (Baldwin, 2004 Hillman, 2004 Richardson, 2004 Armstrong, 2006) and the ethics pertaining to research among specific social groups, such as children, indigenous groups and those with disabilities (Skelton, 2001 Valentine, 2003 Howitt, 2005b Gibson, 2006). Yet, while this interest in research ethics is cer- tainly vibrant, the geographical community has remained notably silent about the issue of online research ethics, a form of ethics specifi cally pertaining to research mediated through the internet using online research methods. This is perhaps surprising given that Warf (2004: 44) proposes that cyberspace is one of the key ���cutting-edge��� issues for the geo- graphical community and more so given the burgeoning research interest in the impact and implications of new media and information and communication technologies (ICT) on every- day life (Graham, 2005 and many others). So, although there has been a small but growing expansion of geographical projects utilizing internet-mediated research (O���Lear, 1996 Holloway and Valentine, 2000 Parr, 2002 Barker, 2005 Madge and O���Connor, 2005 Holdsworth, 2006), little has yet been written by geographers about the ethical issues involved in such research.1 But this silence is notable among other social scientists more generally, again surprising owing to the increased formal regulation and research governance over the management, monitoring and sanctioning of research ethics in many countries. In the UK, for example, the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) has recently de- veloped a ���Research Ethics Framework��� to provide ���clear and practical guidelines on the principles and process of ethics review within UK social science research��� (ESRC, 2005: 27) but this document completely fails to discuss the ethics associated with internet- mediated research despite the fact that this ethics framework was explicitly developed in response to ���advances in information and communication technologies���, among other issues (ESRC, 2005: 27). Similarly, in Canada, the Tri-Council Policy Statement on ���Ethical Conduct for Research involving Humans��� de- veloped by Canada���s three national funding agencies also does not yet explicitly address the ethics involved in internet-mediated re- search (Kitchin, 2003). In the USA there are only a few tentative explorations of the challenges that internet-mediated research poses to current Institutional Review Board practices (Johns et al., 2004 Penden and Flashinski, 2004).2 This paper therefore aims to address this gap in the literature on online research ethics. Its focus is on online research methods (ORM) which include online questionnaires, virtual interviews of various types, virtual ethno- graphies and online experiments, to mention a few. These have been collectively termed internet-mediated research (IMR) or online research practice (ORP). As Mann and Stewart (2000: 8) so aptly recognize: ���Because online research practice is still in its infancy, the critical researcher will be confronted by quandaries at almost every point in the research process.��� Thus the debate surrounding online research ethics is a ���work in progress��� and the ethical challenges are not simple. Indeed, it is clear that many nuances to this debate will evolve as internet-mediated research becomes a more mainstream and sophisticated methodology. The focus of this paper is to explore and advance the debate surrounding online re- search ethics, and my argument goes as follows. The use of internet-mediated research using online research methods has increased signifi cantly in recent years, raising the issue of online research ethics. Obviously, many ethical issues of onsite research are directly translatable to the online context, but there is also a need for existing ethical principles to be examined in the light of these new virtual research strategies.3 Five key issues of ethical conduct are commonly identifi ed in the literature pertaining to online research ethics: informed consent, confidentiality,
656 Progress in Human Geography 31(5) privacy, debriefi ng and netiquette. These are the issues that are most commonly discussed in procedural ethical guidelines for online research.4 However, this paper proposes that, given the recent increased formal regulation and research governance over research ethics in many countries, it is important that discussion of such issues continues as an em- bedded part of professional self-regulation and procedural ethical guidelines are used as creative forums for refl exive debate rather than simply being routinely applied by bureaucratic ethics committees. Finally, in problematizing the role of procedural online ethical guidelines, the conclusions explore how geographers can contribute to the future debate about online research ethics. II Exploring online research ethics There is mixed opinion as to the success of internet-mediated research (Illingworth, 2001 Madge and O���Connor, 2002 Hine, 2005 Stewart and Williams, 2005). There are, however, several commonly suggested general advantages of online research. It is proposed that it enables the researcher to contact a geographically dispersed popula- tion and so can be useful in internationalizing research without adding costs to the fund- ing body. It is also stated to be useful in contacting groups often difficult to reach, such as the less physically mobile (disabled, in prison, in hospital, etc) or the socially isolated (drug dealers, terminally ill, etc) or specific online communities. Savings in costs have been recommended (eg, costs associated with travel, venue, data entry for questionnaires, transcription of interviews). Moreover, according to Denscombe (2003: 51), the quality of responses gained through online research is much the same as responses produced by more traditional methods, war- ranting ���guarded optimism��� about the validity of this new methodology. But is there anything special about the online research environment that necessitates the development of a set of ethical guidelines specifi cally pertaining to the virtual venue? Or can we directly translate ethical principles from onsite research?5 It has been suggested that online research ethics raise many interesting debates as the computer stands ���betwixt and between��� categories of alive/not alive, public/ private, published/non-published, writing/ speech, interpersonal/mass communication and identifi ed/anonymous (cf. Turkle, 1984 Bruckman, 2004). These categories, of course, are not simply dichotomies, but the boundaries between them are blurred and fuzzy. It is the blurring of these boundaries that complicates the direct application of onsite ethical practices to online research. For example, there is still no internationally binding legal agreement as to whether online messages constitute private correspondence or published public texts and whether ���lurking��� is a defensible online research technique or if seeking consent is required in all virtual venues. As Jones (2004: 179) suggests: ���At present for most internet researchers it is likely that gaining access is the least diffi cult aspect of the research process ��� What has become more diffi cult is determining how to ensure ethical use is made of texts, sounds and pictures that are accessed for study.��� Thus, according to Hine (2005: 5), ���Online research is marked as a special category in which the institutionalized understandings of the ethics of research must be re-examined���, supporting the argument that at minimum we do indeed require discussion about the ethical practices specifi cally pertaining to the online environment. Indeed, given that ethics at its simplest is a moral philosophy that involves ���how we systemize, defend and recommend ideas about what is right and wrong, given the particular cultural context��� (Thurlow et al., 2004: 85, emphasis added), it might not be too extreme to suggest that the particular cultural context of the internet might demand some new thinking about what constitutes ethical inquiry. Indeed, according to the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) Ethics Working Committee (quoted by Ess, 2002: 180), online research can entail greater risk to individual privacy and confi dentiality, greater challenges to a researcher in gaining informed consent and