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The Ethics of Online Research

Dr Lee Fallin overviews a number of important considerations for anyone conducting internet-mediated research, or internet research.
Hi everyone. I am Dr Lee Fallin, an academic and library specialist working at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones Library. I’m here to talk about the ethics of online research and a big thank you to my colleague, Dr Jane Wray, the director of research in our faculties of health science, who has helped me put this presentation together. First of all, it is important to differentiate what we mean by internet mediated research versus internet  research. Internet mediated research is where we are perhaps using what we’d consider a traditional instrument such as a focus group, or an interview, but we’re using internet technologies to enable  that. So, we might be conducting a focus group through Microsoft Teams, or conducting interviews through Zoom.
In contrast, internet research is where we are actually researching the internet and other digital data. So, this could be us collecting data from social media like Twitter, or Facebook Or, it could be even as using other digitally native data such as those from a smartwatch or other activity tracker and processing that. Now of course, because of the context of the pandemic we should be thinking about whether or not it’s appropriate   to conduct research and of course right now at the time of recording things looking very good, but pandemic waves come and go. So, at any point when we’re conducting research we should be thinking, is this the right thing for me to be doing right now?
and of course this will really depend on the context in which you’re researching, different countries may be impacted in different ways. So, always carefully consider what you’re doing and if the time is right. Of course, we do need to continue researching stuff; life, business and research must continue and COVID-19 itself is a phenomenon that we should be investigating and as researchers we kind of have a duty to do so. The pandemic and its repercussions are not short term. We have been talking about researching online decades, but particularly in this context for over a year now. So, we need to think about how we work in this new online  world, it’s not going to go away anytime soon.
Yet, there may be some times in which it isn’t appropriate for us to continue our research. This could be because lockdowns and COVID-19 are just generally stressful and is this going to add pressure onto your participants? Is it the right time for you to conduct this study? We also need to think of whether the nature of  COVID-19 can influence how participants would consent. Some people who’ve been isolated for a long time may do anything for a conversation. We need to think about the challenge of  researchers interpreting different enforcement and governmental data and advice around what can be done depending on the country they’re working in.
And of course, research fatigue is a phenomenon we’ve been experiencing for a long time, but it’s going to hit even more around COVID-19 as more researchers are trying to engage online. People will get sick of this engagement. Notwithstanding, we should also think of our own health and well-being. Now, one of the key things we’ve got to consider is whether our research is inclusive particularly when we bring it to the online space. You’ll see, if we look at the UK in particular that while ninety percent of households have access to the internet, this implies that ten percent don’t and you’ll see these are very recent statistics from NHS Digital, published in 2020.
There are hundreds of thousands of people who lack the basic skills to engage effectively   and while a lot of people do go online, 78 percent of them are using a mobile device. So, we have to bear in mind that all of our participants might not be engaging through a computer, or a device that we’re familiar with and the bottom line that we must consider is that almost five million people never go online at  all and if we’re engaging with any form of research we will be permanently excluding those people if we only conduct it online.
Now, this kind of issue does disproportionately affect certain groups. So, you’ll see here that the disabled, those on lower incomes, those in social housing, older people, the unemployed people in rural locations, people who are homeless, people who do not speak English, or have English as a second, third or fourth language and of course people with fewer qualifications. As such, we may be exclusionary if we’re not really careful in how we construct and target our research. Now, we also need to consider how we keep our research data secure. This is a perennial problem and it’s not something new to the online research world. However, because our data is likely to be natively stored  online there’s a few additional concerns that we should really think through carefully.
Think of the personal security of the device we are using. Do we have a password? Do we have a lock on our phone if we’re using that? Where is our data stored? Is it stored securely? Is it password protected? Is in a jurisdiction with sufficient protections to meet the GDPR and Data Protection Act regulations. This is usually the European economic area Is there secure data access so you specify only who has access?  Are you aware of how online tools work so that you  don’t accidentally share or make data available?   Are you complying with all necessary regulations? And of course, do you have the costs and funding that you need to use the right tools and secure tools?
Now, there’s a lot of logistical issues around  online research and of course when we’re thinking of this from an ethics perspective, there’s a few additional things we need to be concerned about. Who else is in the room with my participants? Are they influencing the conversation? Do you really know who you’re talking to? You have not met them in person. are they pretending to be somebody they’re not? Are they professing to be an expert when they are not? How do you deal with the fact that you might  have some data face to face and some online?   Is that analysed the same? Do people respond in the same way? Does that have any methodological and analytical implications for your data?
Is digital richer in digitisation and the information you can get and therefore greater depth because it’s recorded, it’s transcribed versus things where you might not be able to record it in the field. Think about how you contact and recruit  participants. What networks and communities and groups do you leverage to reach them? and how to do that an inclusive way of course as well? Think about how you use the technology. Also, bearing in mind you’ll have to support your participants to do the same. Considering how much longer you may need for setup. So, when you’re meeting people face to face it’s  not particularly difficult to sit down and start talking.
If you’re engaging in an online platform they may need help and support in connecting their microphone their webcam and just general familiarity with the system. And as I have said, yes you will be providing tech  support you know there’s nowhere else for them to call and at the end of the day, you’re the one with the vested interest to make sure they’re empowered to take part in your research. And then finally, how do you document consent? That traditional signed form does not really work in a remote digital only online environment. We also and finally, need to consider the  power dynamics and how they can change in online research.
You are inherently likely to be more familiar with the technology than your participants that gives you potentially  even more power than you usually would in a research scenario. For example, you have the power in Microsoft Teams to mute people. You can’t literally make people shut up in a face-to-face encounter. So, there’s very different dynamics there particularly with focus groups. We also have this illusion of eye contact. There is no such thing really as eye contact. You are either looking at the webcam, or the screen. You cannot do both at the same time.
So, you are not really looking eye to eye with somebody else, you’re both staring at your screens and the webcams are getting the best shot that they can.   If someone does direct attention to the webcam then you can’t see what   they’re doing because you’re looking at a camera and not their face on the screen.   You might miss different spoken and speaking cues particularly if the connection is not perfect. You might miss body language you’ll see I am doing things with my hands right now, but they’re mostly hidden from the shot of this camera. So, thinking about where people position themselves is really really important in online research.
And of course, accessibility and inclusion We have already seen from the excellent NHS data just how much online can exclude certain people.   However, it can also include some groups more. It can enable people to engage where they previously couldn’t because of other restrictions and it can help people engage on a level playing field where they may not need to declare themselves as  disabled, or make it clear that they need special adjustments because they can just join in because technology affords them the ability to do so. That is all I have to say for now. Hopefully, a few points there for you to consider.
The slide deck, which is linked below, has a lot more detail and resources that you may find helpful and all of these slides are available with all  the links below. I hope you found this useful.

In this video, Dr Lee Fallin discusses many of the core ethical principles for online and internet-mediated research. Once you’ve watched the video, share your reflections in the comments section below.

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