Ethics 7 – “When first we practise to deceive”

With one of the fundamental principles of research being to minimise harm, perhaps we should be aiming to tread as lightly as possible in the field? Minimise disturbance to participants? Could it be argued therefore that we should aim to be unobtrusive as possible?


If it is important to gather data based on naturalistic behaviour, as untainted as possible by researcher presence, then being unobtrusive becomes a primary goal. The intention is to avoid observer effects by acting as an ‘overhearer’ (D’Arcy, 2012), rather than a participant who may influence outcomes. However it is a fine line between being unobtrusive and covert; between minimising influence and hiding from view. As Hine (2011) observed:

although we might be able to easily access data using unobtrusive methods, this does not make this ‘ethically available’

The ethical issues do not prevent us from using unobtrusive methods, so much as to remind us of our obligations to participants …and authors.
Unobtrusive research methods predate the Internet, but they have certainly become easier through online channels. Some techniques like content or sentiment analysis of large data sets which provide summaries, rather than specific, identifiable details come with less ethical baggage. Entering a chatroom or monitoring the twitterstream without announcing your presence is also unobtrusive and some might say, crosses an ethical line. This is now covert behaviour, albeit in a ‘public’ place. Lurking, as it is known, is a legitimate online activity however and is common when people enter a new environment for the first time; it allows them to become familiar with norms and conventions.

flickr photo by fudj shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license

An ethical case can be made for unobtrusive, even covert research on the grounds of the reduced impact it has on participants. They’re not required to give up any time, to fit appointments into their schedule or to worry whether what they’ve said is helpful/useful to the researcher. Once more we’re confronted with shades of grey rather than definitive answers, however Whitty (2004) draws a line in the sand for us:

“While it might be unclear as to how ethical it is for lurkers to collect data on the Internet, there is less doubt as to whether it is acceptable to deceive others online in order to conduct social research,…”


Being unobtrusive tips over into deception if researchers deliberately conceal their purpose, do not fully disclose relevant information to participants, or provide false information. (Madge, 2007; Frankel and Siang, 1999). Whether lurking constitutes deception is open for debate. Perhaps we need to return to some of the issues discussed in earlier posts, like privacy.

There are circumstances however where deception might pass scrutiny from an ethical review panel. Those situations where the research could not otherwise be undertaken for example, but only if participants (and researcher) are protected from harm and they are debriefed after the research.
In some online arenas, deception (withholding information, pretending to be someone other) might be the norm; MMORPGs and virtual worlds for example, where a player might take on the role of a character or choose an alternate identity. Without good reason, a researcher should avoid such behaviour, instead opting to find the means to disclose to fellow participants that you are conducting research as (Eynon, 2009; Krotowski, 2010).


How you disclose your status as a researcher to the group with whom you are participating online will depend on the conventions in that space. Providing details in your profile together with a link to an institutional website ‘can increase the credibility of the researcher’s claimed identity and shows respect and courtesy to members of the newsgroup.’ (Madge, 2007). Although some groups are openly hostile to the presence of researchers (Hudson and Bruckman, 2004), a respectful approach and involvement might not only grant access, but also pay dividends:

“Such efforts to establish cultural membership and disclose research aims were foundational to creating relations of caring and trust with group participants.” (Walstrom, 2004)

Porr & Ployhart (2004) consider this rendered even more powerfully through the disclosure-reciprocity effect – “we reveal more to those who have been open to us.” By being completely open and transparent with our participants, it is likely that they will reciprocate.

Since they were conducting observation-only research in a public space and did not need to interact with the participants (using interviews, surveys or experiment), Coughlan and Perryman (2015) felt justified in not disclosing their status. However they also took great care in anonymising the data they gathered, even going so far as to break Facebook’s terms of service by altering the screenshots they captured; a practice regularly undertaken by many reputable institutions and other academics.

Perhaps it is our ethical sensitivity that makes us feel uneasy with unobtrusive, covert or even deceptive research. That is right and proper, but we should also take care that we do not sacrifice a potential contribution to knowledge by playing it too safe. Under the right circumstances, we are granted ethical latitude:

“If research requires any kind of deception, then only by the clear demonstration of the benefits of the research can it be justified.” SRA, 2003

“Education researchers do not use deceptive techniques unless they have determined that their use poses no more than minimal risk to research participants; that their use is justified by the study’s prospective scientific, scholarly, educational, or applied value; and that equally effective alternative procedures that do not use deception are not feasible.” AERA, 2011

“Researchers must therefore avoid deception or subterfuge unless their research design specifically requires it to ensure that the appropriate data is collected or that the welfare of the researchers is not put in jeopardy.” BERA, 2011


AERA Code of Ethics: American Educational Research Association Approved by the AERA Council (2011). [online]. Educational researcher, 40 (3), 145-156.
BERA Ethical guidelines for educational research. (2011). London, BERA.
COUGHLAN, Tony and PERRYMAN, Leigh-Anne (2015). A Murky Business: Navigating the Ethics of Educational Research in Facebook Groups. [online]. European journal of open, distance and e-learning, , 146-169.
D’ARCY, Alexandra and YOUNG, Taylor Marie (2012). Ethics and social media: Implications for sociolinguistics in the networked public1. [online]. Journal of sociolinguistics, 16 (4), 532-546.
EYNON, Rebecca, SCHROEDER, Ralph and FRY, Jenny (2009). New techniques in online research: Challenges for research ethics. [online]. Twenty-first century society, 4 (2), 187-199.
FRANKEL, Mark S. and SIANG, Sanyin (1999). Ethical and legal aspects of human subjects research on the Internet. Published by AAAS online, .
HINE, Christine (2011). Internet research and unobtrusive methods. [online]. Social research update, (61), 1.
HUDSON, James M. and BRUCKMAN, Amy (2004). “Go away”: participant objections to being studied and the ethics of chatroom research. [online]. The information society, 20 (2), 127-139.
Social Research Association (2003). Ethical guidelines. [online]
KROTOSKI, Aleks (2010). Introduction to the special issue: Research ethics in online communities. [online]. International journal of internet research ethics, 3 (1), 1-5.
MADGE, Clare (2007). Developing a geographers’ agenda for online research ethics. Progress in human geography, 31 (5), 654-674.
Social Research Association (2003). Ethical guidelines. [online].
PORR, W. Benjamin and PLOYHART, Robert E. (2004). Organizational Research Over the Internet: Ethical Challenges and Opportunities. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. Hershey, USA: Idea Group Inc, 130-155.
WALSTROM, Mary K. (2004). Ethics and Engagement in Communication Scholarship: Analyzing Public, Online Support Groups as Researcher/Participant-Experiencer. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. Hershey, USA: Idea Group Inc, 174-202.
WHITTY, Monica (2004). Peering into Online Bedroom Windows: Considering the Ethical Implications of Investigating Internet Relationships and Sexuality. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth (ed.). Readings in Virtual Research Ethics: Issues and Controversies. Hershey, USA: Idea Group Inc, 203-218.


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