Ethics 8 – So what?

flickr photo by PaoloMazzoleni shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

That’s the question researchers have to continually ask themselves – why is what I’ve said/written/discovered important or why does it matter? The preceding seven posts have covered various topics around the ethics of conducting research on the Internet. So what? What matters in this instance is how that will help to ensure my research study is ethically sound. In this concluding post I’ll try to frame that learning within this context.

It’s worth reiterating the context with which my study is located. A specific group of teachers engaged in a particular activity – those using Twitter for professional learning. These are well educated people engaged in an activity (of their own volition) which would not be considered ‘sensitive.’ Charged with supporting young people in using technology and social media wisely, they are more likely to be aware of the consequences of engaging in the use of social media.

The pilot methods I outlined in a previous post are restated here:

  1. Immersion in my Twitter stream for 24 hours (possibly over three shifts) – ‘deep hanging out’. This will provide a snapshot of activity from a self-selecting sample of the two thousand plus educators I follow.
  2. Closely following the twitterstream of a teacher for a limited period, chosen from those who have made claims regarding the efficacy of Twitter. This is to investigate whether focusing on an individual might yield more informative data.
  3. Attempting informal interviews using the commenting feature on blogs. This will be across a small number of blog posts in which the authors make claims of how useful they found Twitter for professional learning.
  4. Conducting a single semi-structured interview with one of the more evangelical of those educators making claims for Twitter. This should tease out areas and themes to explore in more depth.
  5. Seeking permission, then attempting a focus group interview within a Twitter #edchat. This may push the boundaries of what constitutes a focus group, or the depth of discussion possible in a #chat.
  6. Using an automated routine to collect tweets over one month which reference a particular term e.g. “professional learning.” This will access the general Twitter stream and therefore a wider sample, offering the potential for unanticipated outcomes to emerge.
  7. Attempting to open dialogue within Twitter (or elsewhere) with anyone who makes claims about Twitter in relation to their professional learning. A ‘naive’ stance will be taken whilst attempting to draw out further information.
  8. Small-scale social network analysis of a topic or hashtag to explore the interconnections which are forming. The focus here is not on the content of the tweets, nor the people which are connected, but the ways they are connected with each other and the information flows between them.

In the following table, I highlight how the significant themes discussed in this ethics strand of posts apply to my proposed methods:

These are of course only my interpretations, based on being a user of Twitter for professional learning for the last seven years. It would be imprudent however to assume I am at liberty to speak for all teachers on Twitter. Ideally I should seek to verify the alignment of my perceptions with those of the potential participants. I could survey or interview people, as Beninger et al (2014) and Hudson and Bruckman (2010) did. But I suspect the outcome would be far from definitive, and I would find people expressing the same range of views from ‘this is an open platform and people should know what they’re doing’ to ‘I’m OK with people using my information so long as they ask first.’ The difficulty then is in being sensitive to and addressing the wishes of all participants. Is this even possible? It’s important therefore to behave in a way that responds to context; if a tweet or the content of a blog leans more towards personal reflection, than open debate, I would be less inclined to intrude. As Roberts et al (2004) advise – “expectation of privacy overrides the distinction between public and private spaces.” Better then to consider the micro-context very carefully.

Some factors in the summary (like ‘degree of interaction’) are less subjective, whilst other issues are open to interpretation. Views about what is public and what private often differ in degree, as indeed does the need to seek consent. Where possible, it would seem sensible to be guided by precedent and what has been deemed acceptable practice by researchers who have gone before.

My greatest dilemma is regarding anonymity. Based on experience and personal preference, I tend to concur with Roberts et al (2004) & Sixsmith & Murray (2001), and would prefer to seek to empower participants by offering them the choice of having their authorship recognised and being credited in published works. What I feel I’ve done, as can be seen in the table, is opt for the safer and simpler option of anonymising the data, rather than acknowledging the contributions of participants. Wrong decision? What would you prefer?

Despite all the dilemmas, dichotomies and disagreements, the touchstone to which I’ll always return is to ensure minimal impact/harm for participants and to maximise beneficence.

BENINGER, Kelsey, et al. (2014). Research using social media; users’ views. [online]. NatCen social research, .
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.
ROBERTS, Lynne, SMITH, Leigh and POLLOCK, Clare (2004). Conducting ethical research online: Respect for individuals, identities and the ownership of words. In: BUCHANAN, Elizabeth A. (ed.). Readings in virtual research ethics: Issues and controversies. IGI Global, 156-173.
SIXSMITH, J. and MURRAY, C. D. (2001). Ethical issues in the documentary data analysis of Internet posts and archives. [online]. Qualitative health research, 11 (3), 423.

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