Using Online discussion forums for data

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    I was wondering if anyone had come across recent research which uses data from an online forum discussion thread? I can find studies which discuss conducting research online but I only want to use some of the concepts or issues discussed in this one ‘thread’, very much like document analysis or discourse analysis i think? The forum itself is a public one, all posts are available to view whether you are a member or not.

    Thanks in advance


    I this likely to be a bit of a mine field then? I know there are ethical considerations but hoped that someone out there had similar experiences to draw on. I really want to be able to use this data but need to be able to justify it to my supervisor in the first instance.

    Dr Ann Lawless

    I think some of the ethical hesitations are resolved if the discussion thread is in the public domain, and if you adopt a role as participant observer which is respectful – eg not mocking. I am doing a small research project on this at the moment, and the respectful ethics is callenging as some of the content of the online discussion is racist and patroninsing.

    My analytical approach to the data is failrly simple – I am looking for trends and patterns in the nature of the discourse as well as key issues in the content.

    But this sort of reseach is thwart with ethical issues.

    Dr Ann Lawless

    Hi again

    I cant track it at the moment, but there has been some publications by family heritage researchers on the dilemmas of doing research which uses online discussion as a data source.

    I sugest you do a search of the literature using appropriate search items


    Thank you Ann. I will try and track down some literature later today. I was wondering if I should be actually participating in the online discussion or simply observing it, The thread I am following has been discussing my topic of interest for more than 2 years and runs to over 300+ pages. I am obviously coming to the discussion late in the day and can’t see what my contribution could offer. Is it ethically acceptable to simply analyse the discussion without seeking permission to do so from the forum moderators?

    April Maria

    I would love you to share any literature that you find with me. I created a Facebook Discussion group for a research project on education reform and I am gathering lots of great data. The people who choose to participate are told up front that their discussions will be used for a research project. Everyone is glad to be adding to the information about the future of education. I have not found any literature about online discussion forums and I hope to find someone who has done so for my lit review.


    That sounds like a fantastic idea, I had thought of using Facebook in my research but came across the discussion forum before I took that thought any further. I have found a few promising references to papers about using online discussions but have yet to follow them up, a job for this week though so I will get back to you with anything useful.

    Areti Galani

    Hi Sara,

    I am currently involved in a AHRC-funded project that seeks to develop training material on Digital Heritage methodologies; in my research for this project I have come across a couple of ESRC resources on the issues of ethics in e-research, which include some material relevant to your question. You might want to check out the Exploring Online Research Methods portal (, especially the self-study units that cover Online Research Ethics and Online Methodological Futures. These units discuss the issue of private/public data with relevant references. As you have found in your own research, obtaining (or non obtaining consent) in these cases is not a clear cut – the above units rehearse the different arguments.

    Additionally, you might find useful this article ( from Times Higher that reports/comments on the ‘e-research ethics’ session that took place in the ESRC-funded Research Methods Festival 2008 in Oxford. The programme of that session and some downloads are also available online ( Personally, I am quite interested in the idea that privacy is context-dependent – in the case of e-research this might mean that consent might not be required if the data analysis focuses on the content of the conversations rather than the people who contribute (so anonymity is preserved) or when the participants themselves do not consider their contributions as private (and vice versa).

    Dr Ann Lawless

    The following article appeared this week:
    Mubarak AR, Rohde A and Pukulski P The social beenfits of online chat rooms for university students: an explorative study. Journal of higher education policy and management vol 31, no 2, may 2009, pp 161-175

    The articlereports on university staff who established and monitored a chat room for uni students.

    Dr Ann Lawless

    Hi April
    which domain of edcuation is addressed by your facebook group?

    Dr Ann Lawless

    Hi Sara
    I have stumbled across someone in TWITTER who is interested in online and e-learning issues, and releases TWEEKS on it. He seems to have a lot of followers in twitter, and building a learning community using this forum…

    Dr Ann Lawless

    I think once you set up your bulletin alert services with the appropriate search terms and well-chosen journals for the alerting service, you will find a lot of material on research among online communities, and the ethics of it all. It has been quite well-researched, and much of it is very honest and reflective.

    Dr Ann Lawless

    two minutes before my starship leaves the bus station:
    you might look at work by Nicole prause of a uni in idaho, usa – she did some research, I seem to reall (but check for yoursel, am in a hurry) among online chatrooms on aven or asexual adults
    Prause, N., & Graham, C. A. (2007). Asexuality: Classification and characterization. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 36, 341-356.


    Thanks Ann, I am a bit of a Twitter novice, I only signed up after reading your reply! Can you point me in the right direction to find the person you mention?

    My alert is now set up so hopefully I will be getting regular updates on this topic in the future and next port of call is to check the reference you left above. Thanks for all your pointers.


    Thank you, that’s very useful and should keep me busy reading this morning.

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