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There are a lot of blogs around. Even on this site there are a lot of posted ideas and information about research. What are the ethical and analytical questions related to using this data? Could I, for instance, just download a lot of students' blogs about their school experience and use this as data? Look forward to your ideas about this contemporary issue ...

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Hi Bernard. Many thanks for your comments and thoughts.

Can I respond to a couple of things. First, the blogs I want to use are those I identify through a web search. I will have no say in setting up the blog, they are not my students nor do I have any interaction on their blog. They are publically available blogs.

Perhaps it is not possible to know whether the participants realise that their blog posts are in fact public. The very nature of blogging must surely imply that making posts is for the very purpose of letting others know your thoughts. e.g. today I came across a blog from a class of students doing a coastal walk - there was discussion of the walk planning, progress and ideas about conservation. There were comments from parents and local community groups, as well as posts from people from across the world, asking questions and making comments. This could be used as an example of collaborative learning in online spaces. Yet, the ethical question remains - should I get permission from the school or the students to use this publically available data? Or does its public nature mean I can simply use this as a data source.

Perhaps it depends on the use of the data. If I was to do an analysis of ten different blogs and present language trends in student generated online conversation without illustrative quoting, then I can't see how I would require either permission or ethical approval.

As you comment, this raises many questions. It also shows the need to make very clear the methodological thinking behind each case of blog based research - including specific contextual answers to questions about the public nature of the data and the analytical process, along with potential ethical concerns.

Craig

Hi Craig,

You said:" Perhaps it is not possible to know whether the participants realise that their blog posts are in fact public."

 

I think it can be argued that they do, as blogging tools like Blogger generally enable blog owners to determine the access level of their blogs.  They can make their blogs public, open to selected readers only, or closed to everyone except the owner. 

 

Just a thought.

 

Rodney

Rodney, In principle, I agree that it LOOKS LIKE the bloggers understand that their posts are "public" and perhaps they even deliberately seek out comments from far and wide BUT if the blogs were part of a class exercise and if the teacher who created the exercise had a naive understanding of who might have access to those posts and made use of a site to host the blogs simply because it was available rather than thought through all the implications of using such sites, then as researchers I think we ought to be uncomfortable using that door just because no one thought to lock it. Now, it is very possible that the blogs were very thoughtfully set up in the way they were... BUT  Craig does not know that... If he knows the source of the blogs perhaps all it takes is a letter to the school or teacher announcing what he intends to do. An unlocked door is not an invitation to enter especially when that door is left open by students because of course requirements. 

In the same vein as Bernard -

I still fail to see how you have addressed the issue of informed consent - in fact both parts of the term seem to have been ignored by you - it appears that you are not going to 'inform' people that they are now part of a research project that they know nothing about and they did not sign up to a blog to be so. Second in what way could you be said to have gained the consent of the participants?

 

In addition, you seem to imply that you are intersted in the acitivites of school children - minors in the eye of the law thereby requiring parental consent and approval

 

afraid it looks more like voyeurism than ethical research so far

Ahh Muir

If only things were as black and white as you imply. The point is there is no legal backstop to this issue. From which country's laws do you draw your definitiveness.

This is an ethical question, mired in new technology and previously unthought of ways of doing business. As such, there is much debate about the correct course of action. Far from ignoring the issue of informed consent this whole discussion is about precisely that. Specifically, what is the public nature of public comment.

Your comment about voyeurism is an example of why we need to be open to critical discussion about this contemporary issue rather than use traditional closed frameworks.

I have to admit that I wouldn't have a second's hesitation to download any blog at all and use it as data. In my eyes, it's public behavior just like watching people at a park or a football game and, consequently, is fair game. In fact, it may qualify as a form of archival research that is completely out of the jurisdiction of IRBs. (It certainly is if it's considered a work of art like http://wefeelfine.org/, which even links the comments to the original blogs that they came from.)

 

Whatever my take on that is worth, I must admit that I am more interested in the second half of your question: the ANALYTICAL questions related to such data use. And I'd love to hear what others have to say.

 

Bart

If we assume that the ethical questions are addressed and resolved your question (Craig's and Barton's) about the analytical focus of such data is fascinating. Presumably one can treat such material as naturally occurring rather than the product of the researcher's interaction with subjects. (presumably one of the weaknesses of analyzing data gleaned from interviews is that interviewee talk is in response to interviewer questions and grounded theory analysis would then be rooted in the interviewer's questions). This would be far closer to ethnography or participant observation. That said, could Craig treat the materials as being anything other than "accounts"? And as "accounts" could they be used to say anything about the nature of world itself (the bloggers or what they are blogging about)? Or would you be limited to using those blogs to explore how members make sense of the world and the accounts of others ?  

Let me reply from the perspective of a former chair of Insitutional Review Boards with 30 years of experience in Human Subjects Research. Publically available blogs, e.g., found on the internet, are posted without any expectation of privacy but still may be subject ot copyright and restrictions on secondary use established by their author or the Internet hosting site. Read the conditions of use usually found as a link somewhere at the very bottom of a web page. Using these web blogs for qualitative and quantitative studies, akin to historical and communicatrions research studies are acceptable.

 

Faculty use of materials students prepared a part of a class for a faculty research project represents, however, an entirely different ethical consideration. It is not an uncommon dilemma for those in educational research. Students are not, first and foremost, human subjects for faculty research. Indeed, because of ease of access to them and the power differential between faculty and students, they have been exploited as subjects. The most common is as human subjects in psychological research. The ethical considerations where student materials, or students themselves, are used as Human Subjects are: 1) Were the students informed in advance that materials they produced would be used for faculty research? 2) Were the students given an option to opt out of being a research subject or supplying research data and were they given an alternative assignment or way to meet course requirements. 3) Are the results of the research going to be shared with the students or has the faculty included a way (participative) to involve the students in the research process? 4) Have all efforts been made to assure that no student's identity or identity related material can be determined? 5) Have the students completed a formal informed consent to be be subjects of your research?

 

Although settings vary, most Institutional Review Boards have staff or faculty members who will help work through the ethical determination of class-room generated research.

A moment ago I commented on the ethical issues surrounding the use of student blogs, but not the data validity question that Craig posited. As several others have indicated, public blogs could be rich sources for ethnographic analysis, content analysis, historiography, qualitative live event studies, and many other methods others can cite better than I.

 

The use of materials as student blogs/diaries would seem to be no different that any other source material used. There are bounds for inference and use placed upon them by issues as their original purpose, mode of distribution, generalizability of authors, and conditions under which they were created. Validity then, is a matter of not pushing their use beyond what they permit. One can find many examples in historiography where, intendedly or inadvertently, the analysis has ignored the limits of documentation. Avoid those biases and work carefully through threats to validity and one would be fine, indeed, with a rich vein of narrative source materials.

why not?

you also can complete it with your own observation

Thanks! I teach qual research, and have a doctoral student contemplating the use of blogs as data. This will be most helpful!

Hi Craig,

A very interesting topic and one the network NatCen, SAGE and OII network are starting up on social media research methods will be grappling with... http://www.methodspace.com/forum/topics/new-ncrm-network-for-social...

You should think about joining!

Best,

Katie

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