Conducting research on the Internet – ethical considerations Professor Nick Hardiker, July 2012

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Conducting research on the Internet – ethical considerations

Professor Nick Hardiker, July 2012

According to the ESRC research ethics framework1, research on the Internet involves more than minimal risk, particularly where visual images are used, and where sensitive issues are discussed.

This brief document seeks to inform initial discussions around research on the Internet - observational studies, surveys, experiments, etc. The goal is to promote research on the Internet by raising potential issues for the benefit of ethical review panels, who increasingly are being asked to consider applications involving chat rooms, blogs, web sites, social networking sites, etc.

Much of the content of this document is derived from The British Psychological Association Report of the Working Party on Conducting Research on the Internet: Guidelines for ethical practice in psychological research online2 among other resources.

It should be noted that those involved in the research on the Internet are entitled to the same ethical considerations as those involved in research in traditional settings. However, there are additional ethical issues. These arise principally out of the absence of physical contact between the researcher and participants; this in turn restricts the extent to which the researcher can monitor what is happening to participants (and vice versa) and support them accordingly.

There are two key dimensions that set research on the Internet apart from research in traditional settings: a) whether participants are identifiable or anonymous, and b) whether participants consent to take part or whether they are observed without their knowledge. These two dimensions give rise to a number of ethical issues and associated questions for ethical review panel members. These are presented below. The list of issues is not comprehensive – individual research projects will bring their own unique issues – but they may be sufficient a) to help determine the most appropriate modality for research and b) to promote, facilitate and support research on the Internet.

  1. Identifiable participants who have consented to participate


In research on the Internet it is difficult to verify the identity of participants. This is problematic when it is critical to confirm identity or particular characteristics such as age, gender, country of residence. Research on the Internet may not be appropriate if it is essential to know identity or specific characteristics or to restrict particular participants in some way e.g. to exclude vulnerable participants or children – these cannot realistically be prevented from taking part or assumed not to be participating.


Internet users are accustomed to skipping over or agreeing without reading or understanding lengthy statements about conditions of use, downloads, etc. Researchers should take steps to ensure that participants are not discouraged from reading information ‘sheets’ and to make them easy to digest. As the ability to verify participants’ understanding is compromised, additional steps may be needed to ensure that participants are able to make appropriate choices.

  1. Identifiable participants who are observed without their knowledge


Due to the nature of the Internet, many elements of research are outside the control of the researcher: the identity of participants, their environment, the equipment they are using, their reaction to research materials, etc. If it is desirable to control any of these factors then some human involvement may be necessary e.g. dedicated manned testing centres. Research design should seek to reduce any potentially confounding variation in these factors.


As monitoring and debriefing may be restricted with research on the Internet, research materials that have a significant potential to cause distress or to have lasting effects on participants should be avoided, although Whiteman (2010) would argue ‘Internet researchers have similarly emphasised the need for a continuous negotiation of ethics in the face of empirical developments that cannot be anticipated in advance of research’.


The usual ethical considerations around protecting individuals involved in research also apply in research on the Internet, including taking appropriate action when factors that may affect the future well-being of individual participants come to light – possibly problematic when participants are unidentifiable and uncontactable. O’Connor (2010) argues that ‘Researchers who investigate such online communities arguably have an ancillary care responsibility to those communities; namely, to become apomediaries themselves in order to help mitigate the dissemination and acceptance of incorrect or even dangerous medical (mis)information within those communities’. Care should be taken to maintain a boundary between professional and personal use of the Internet. Note that unencrypted email should be considered insecure, in terms of recruitment there is legislation around ‘spamming’ and in terms of increasing validity the gathering of IP address and the use of cookies might be considered invasions of privacy. Note also that it is impossible to maintain absolute confidentiality of participants online because communications networks are generally not under the control of the researcher. Researchers need to consider the ways in which participants should be best informed of how their data might be handled within and beyond the research study and how confidentiality might (or very easily could) be breached. Although this paper does not cover the legal liability of researchers e.g. around harm, negligence, defamation, etc. there are discussion papers on these topics (albeit with an emphasis on US law) by Lipinski (2008, 2009).

  1. Anonymous participants who have consented to take part


There must be a clear justification for the use of deception online, not least because of the difficulties associated with debriefing. Note that deception also includes ‘lurking’ i.e. joining a group as a member but using the membership to gather data, or deliberately misleading information.

  1. Anonymous participants who are observed without their knowledge


New technology blurs the boundary between public and private space. The fact that private conversations can be made public through changes in access, the fact that publicly accessible Internet resources may be copyrighted, and the fact that research data might be more visible and permanent than in traditional research all serve to complicate the issue. Participants may consider their publicly accessible Internet activity to be private (note that observation of public behaviour should take place only where people would reasonably expect to be observed by strangers). The ESRC research ethics framework states ‘Information provided in forums or spaces on the Internet and Web that are intentionally public would be valid to consider ‘in the public domain’, but the public nature of any communication or information on the Internet should always be critically examined, and the identity of individuals protected unless it is critical to the research, such as in statements by public officials.’ Researchers should respect participants’ rights to privacy and the extent to which observations may cause harm to participants i.e. considering the additional risks over-and-above the risks that already exist through the participants’ use of the resource. One such risk is the use of direct quotes or pseudonyms used by Internet users in research reports that might facilitate the identification of individuals through search engines – individuals should fully understand and consent to this. Public and private space is discussed further by Roseberg (2010).


For practical reasons, researchers may wish to restrict themselves to research where debriefing can be achieved through a short piece of text (avoiding distressing information) on a debriefing page.

An additional resource that may prove useful to this initial discussion (although it may be a little dated and is very uncomfortable to read) is the recommendations from the Association of Internet Researchers ethics working committee, available at:


Lipinski, TA. (2008). Emerging Legal Issues in the Collection and Dissemination of Internet-Sourced Research Data: Part I, Basic Tort Law Issues and Negligence. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics Vol. 1.

Lipinski, TA. (2009). Emerging Legal Issues in the Collection and Dissemination of Internet-Sourced Research Data: Part II, Tort Law Issues Involving Defamation. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics Vol. 1.

O’Connor, D. (2010). Apomediation and Ancillary Care: Researchers’ Responsibilities in Health-Related Online Communities. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics Vol. 3.

Rosenberg, Å. (2010). Virtual World Research Ethics and the Private/Public Distinction. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics Vol. 3.

Whiteman, N. (2010). Control and Contingency: Maintaining Ethical Stances in Research. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics Vol. 3.



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