Is it ethically okay to use internet sources as evidence for qualitative studies?

As an avid forum dweller and otherwise internet junkie, the ethical debate regarding unconsented use of an internet source in research is one which I find I can relate to. Many argue that it is not okay to use internet sources. It violates some of the BPS’ values, such as informed consent (getting in contact with your participant isn’t an easy job in most cases)and the right to withdraw (I’d find it quite difficult to withdraw my data from something I had no knowledge about).

However, as an internet user, one should know that whatever it is they are sharing online is likely to be seen by many other people. That is the essence of the internet, and I think that it is this that researchers need to take into account when deciding whether or not to use a specific internet source in a study. Mann and Stewart (2000) argued that it’s important to distinguish between private and semi-private internet content, such as closed forums (those only available for viewing by registered users) and open forums (content is available for viewing by anyone who visits that webpage). Also, internet users should be aware of a companies ToS if they use a related website. Oftentimes companies will specify that they allow the use of all information on the website for research purposes. By ticking that ToS box, they have given informed consent for their data to be used. 

I am of the opinion ‘to each their own’. What we put on the internet is no longer ours in a sense, and it is the responsibility of each individual on the web to know and to understand what that means. Anything which you wouldn’t want the whole entire world to know is not safe on the internet, I believe, is a great way of thinking for any internet user, and would help eliminate any argument on the ethicality of internet sources in research. Prevention is the best cure! =]. 


16 thoughts on “Is it ethically okay to use internet sources as evidence for qualitative studies?

  1. te9192 says:

    I have to completely agree with you on this!!

    However, maybe people feel that it does violate that guidelines set by the BPS as people are not aware that their blogs or Facebook accounts could be used in research. If people was more aware that the things they put on the internet could be used, then there is no arguement as to whether it is unethical or not. This is where I feel that ToS is perfect for this. Each individual is aware that anything that they publish on that site can be used, therefore have given informed consent, but once you have put something on the worldwide web, you cannot remove it. This what may cause an issue.

    Using the internet would make collecting information extremely easy, and minimise the length of time it takes to collect data, in addition to it all being in one place.

  2. psucd8 says:

    I think you have made a good point about how the issue of informed consent can be very controversial, and that this can partially be resolved by the ToS, although not fully as individuals will not know specifically what the research is for. However this lack of informed consent may also result in researchers getting inaccurate results. Many people who use social networks and forums etc often do not provide their true personal details, or do not disclose much of it due to security issues, therefore a researcher does not know if the individual is actually who they say they are. For example, if a researcher wanted to know the views of 18-25 year olds about a certain issue then they have no idea whether their participants really are in this age group or whether they are actually 40 pretending to be 25, as if often common. Also, another main ethical principle of the BPS is debriefing. This guideline is blatantly violated using many forms of internet research because individuals will not specifically know when their information is being used or what for in order to even attempt to get debrief. And if data is meant to be anonymous then it could be difficult to actually find out what study the source was used in. This would be different if the participant voluntarily does a specific questionnaire etc for research. The link provided below provides a greater insight into the ethical issues involved with internet research and how some of these issues may be resolved.

  3. baw8 says:

    i agree with you that what is put on the internet can be seen by everyone but how can you be 100% sure that what you read on the internet is the truth. people make stuff up so can the internet be a good place to get data when people can write anything on the internet?? i agree with the previous comment people lie on the internet they can change their age their gender and nobody would know as you can not see the person for yourself which can be risky when your looking at a certain age or gender. i feel the internet is not a good place to gain information not only because you can not gain full consent but people are able to be who they want to be on the internet not who they really are and say what they may not normally say out loud.

  4. prpj says:

    I also agree with your blog! However, although people may agree to their information being shared, we can do this so often we don’t consider the consequences because posting to the internet becomes such an everyday thing. Posting something to the internet allows this data to be used by other sources without us knowing, but what we don’t know can’t hurt us right? There are so many people that don’t realise how public the internet is that use it everyday, these people might have their data used in a study and don’t necessarily want to take part, they just don’t realise what they have done, so establishing informed consent is so difficult. Also another massive problem about using the internet is TROLLS. The internet is one of the easiest places to lie. It would be pretty tricky to establish how genuine and honest someone is being on the internet and can easily fake data which can result in distorting our results.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Hello, this is a very informative blog which raises important issues on using the internet as a research source. There have been additional textbooks published on online research to help researchers when using this methodology (Chen and Hall, 2003, Hewson et al., 2003). They highlight some advantages of being able to use the internet as a source of research, for example, being able to reach less available participants such as the less available groups in society (disabled, prisoners, individuals in hospital etc).

    It enables research to become more globalised and representative of the global population. Denscombe (2003) stated that the quality of responses gained through online research is much greater than responses produced by more traditional methods.

    Online research is not there to replace onsite research methodology however it is a good option for researchers to have available.. C Madge argues that the advantages of using the internet as a source should not overcome some of the obvious ethical and risk issues and that many of the issues and problems of conventional research still apply in the virtual venue. Therefore Denscombe (2003) suggests we should base our decision on the evaluation of both advantages and disadvantages.

  6. psuc97 says:

    Great blog, really easy to follow which is very nice 🙂
    I agree with your point that it’s the individual’s responsibility what they put on the internet, I mean if you don’t want everyone to know a secret or problem you have then why would you post it on the internet for the world to see? I think from an ethical perspective it is okay for researchers to use internet sources for research if they are accessible to the public. Kitchin and Eysenbach and Till (2001) ‘defines non-intrusive web-based research as research on the Internet that does not require the involvement of the researcher (it draws on text data or data from Web sites or discussion groups that the researcher observes)’ so yeah, if the researcher can simply observe the data rather than having to sign up to any private forums or similar private internet sources.

  7. psud22psych says:

    This is a very current blog in its issues and the move towards increasing amounts of digital publication etc. In short, the old publication system in my opinion an old bloated horse that is having to run to keep up with its rider and new “developments” are only sports shoes that will help keep up but will not solve the problem that we have a system that is incongruent with the new generation of users.

    Anyway, I believe that you are correct in your overall message but not in your explanation of user behaviour whilst a good user is aware of the way the internet works and an incompetent user is not, a bad user is aware and uses this to their advantage (See Rick,Rolling for an example :] ) This introduces the age old problem that whilst certain personalities will find solace in anonymity (Asch, 1951) and answer more truthfully, at the same time anonymity causes some to adapt their responses and completing the test entirely. Fuller, 1974 found that whilst some were more confident in honest criticism , there was a massive increase in unconditional positive regard and wholly negative feeling on the anonymous group. When you relate this to the internet you find that especially with Facebook that people omit the bad aspects of their life and post more or exclusively positive things which affects perceptions of the person and what they are saying. For example, a covert racist will omit their racist tendencies on any anonymous form or application such as Facebook and publicise their job promotion.

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  9. psucb9 says:

    I understand your argument and it is evident that the Internet is increasingly being used as a medium for psychological research, but is this just because it is so easy to?
    Buchanan (1999) created an electronic version of Gangestad & Snyder’s (1985) revised self-monitoring questionnaire. It was then posted on the internet. 963 responses were made and these were all compared to the 224 completed paper versions. The use of the internet compared favourably as a measure of self-monitoring however Buchanan encouraged validation of test instruments.
    The advantages of using the internet for psychological research are as follws:
    1. Access to large numbers of potential research participants
    2. Data acquisition and analysis entirely automated
    3. People with special characteristics located and contacted more easily
    4. Minimal expense

    The disadvantages however are:
    1. Nature of sample
    2. Volunteer status of participants
    3. Environmental factors and nature of the testing environment
    4. Technological factors
    5. Multiple completions and mischievous responding

    It is up to the researcher as to whether they believe the advantages weigh out the disadvantages. Once their research is published stating internet sources were used, it is open to critics and scrutiny from fellow researchers.

    Here is an article to provide a little more information

  10. Firstly, I liked your block. I think it awesome, supaowesome. However, I assume becouse people do not buy the places in internet; they are better not to assume that their information in internet is private . The ethics should be taken into account not by people who put information in internet (any source), but by the researchers who are going to get that information or use it. Researchers need to take into account what kind of information they are using, and definitely think how this information can be use, or maybe this info is biased (maybe 11 year old boy writing in lesbian forum for fun). The internet is very hard to control variable, and not many scientific researchers are actually using information from public forums or even not public ones. But I liked your points. (check my later block on internet related topic)

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