Research Ethics and the Social Scientist

There are many angles on why an understanding of ethics and social science research must go hand in hand.  While ethics is very important, perhaps US Law and the history of the study of human subjects are more compelling reasons for ethical examination of your research plan; researchers who study human subjects must first pass their research plan by the Institutional Review Board (the IRB) for approval.  Carleton has a very good IRB quiz to help you determine whether your research will require IRB approval.   Researchers at other institutions will need to pass their own IRB approval and all Institutional Review Boards have their own interpretations of the federal guidelines as well as institutional standards.

The principle goals of the IRB are to ensure that researchers understand and uphold the following two standards dictated by federal law:

  1. Human subjects should not be placed at undue risk;
  2. Subjects should give uncoerced, informed consent to their participation in the research.

That's great, but in the recent past, the world has become much more complicated with regard to privacy. 

Each day about 1,700 juniors at an East Coast college log on to to accumulate “friends,” compare movie preferences, share videos and exchange cybercocktails and kisses. Unwittingly, these students have become the subjects of academic research.

Where is the boundary between public and private? What is digital citizenship? At what point is someone in danger of being placed at undue risk?  What is informed consent on the internet? What are the ethics of studying Wikileaks released material?

These are excellent questions which require more resources to help you determine for yourself whether your research idea borders on sketchy ethical ground (and weather you can do something to mitigate the risk or if you should pick up another project idea.)

Although federal rules govern academic study of human subjects, universities, which approve professors’ research methods, have different interpretations of the guidelines. “The rules were made for a different world, a pre-Facebook world,” said Samuel D. Gosling, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, who uses Facebook to explore perception and identity. “There is a rule that you are allowed to observe public behavior, but it’s not clear if online behavior is public or not.”>;

Here are some resources for further study on the topic:

Related Research Organizations & specific blogs:

Michael ~ information ethics : privacy : new media : values in design : 2.0

Online Social Research: Methods, Issues, and Ethics "...a collection of essays by veteran online researchers who provide testimonial illustrations as to how traditional research methods may be modified for effective online research as well as identify and discuss the critical issues and dilemmas encountered." Published in (2004)

Havard Law School's INFO/LAW blog (this link points to the "privacy" tag)

The Association of Internet Researchers is an international association for students and scholars in any discipline in the field of of Internet studies.

Oxford Internet Institute  "Our research faculty, academic visitors and research associates are engaged in a variety of research projects covering social, economic, political, legal, industrial, technical and ethical issues of the Internet in everyday life, governance and democracy, science and learning and shaping the Internet."

Berkelely Online Relationship Lab "We are an interdisciplinary research team from the School of Information and the Department of Psychology at UC Berkeley. Our work focuses on the social psychology of relationship formation through computer-mediated communication systems."

University Computer Policy & Law Program (the program for Information Technology Ethics Education @ Cornell)

Technosociology: our tools, ourselves blog by sociology assistant professor ZEYNEP TUFEKCI at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Articles to get you started:

"But the Data is Already Public”: On the Ethics of Research in Facebook draft paper Posted by Michael Zimmer on 6/18/09

"But the Data is Already Public”: On the Ethics of Research in Facebook slides from Michael Zimmer, PhD, School of Information Studies
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, June 26, 2009 :: CEPE

On Facebook, Scholars Link Up With Data By STEPHANIE ROSENBLOOM
Published: December 17, 2007, New York Times.

The Hazards of Nerd Supremacy: The Case of WikiLeaks  by JARON LANIER published: DEC 20 2010, 2:50 PM ET

Wikileaks Exposes Internet's Dissent Tax, not Nerd Supremacy by ZEYNEP TUFEKCI published: DEC 22 2010, 12:02 PM ET

This page prepared by Paula Lackie for a Learning & Teaching Center presentation Being Virtually Ethical: What's Fair Game in Online Research?Being Virtually Ethical: What's Fair Game in Online Research?


 Please write to Paula Lackie with any updates, additions or notes. Providing the URL will help! plackie <at>