Research Ethics in an Ethics-Challenged World

Categories: MentorSpace, Other, Research, Research Ethics, Research Methods

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right vs wrongEthics and scholarly research are inextricably linked. But it is not always obvious what ethical research means  and how we go about ensuring that our studies are conducted and disseminated ethically. Alas, we don’t have signposts to follow, in a world where choices for researchers keep evolving.  In this series of Methodspace posts, we’ll explore contemporary ethical dilemmas– and practical ways to work through them.


I am sure that by now you have seen the news about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. You might be horrified if you are a user who has been sharing news and pictures of every life event on Facebook, playing the little game apps, building networks of friends and colleagues with whom you share views by liking others’ posts.

If you are an online researcher, you might have cringed to read comments like this one from the New York Times:

“[Cambridge Analytica] harvested private information from the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission. Cambridge paid to acquire the personal information through an outside researcher who, Facebook says, claimed to be collecting it for academic purposes…The data Cambridge collected from profiles, a portion of which was viewed by The Times, included details on users’ identities, friend networks and “likes.” Only a tiny fraction of the users had agreed to release their information to a third party.”

Perhaps like me, three particular phrases jumped out in this quote: without their permission, tiny fraction of the users had agreed…, and the data were collected based on a claim stating for academic purposes. The revelations from this egregious lapse will have an impact whether you are a researcher who wants to interact with participants, or collect their responses to surveys or questionnaires, or a Big Data analyst. Those of us who are genuine academic researchers will now have to overcome suspicions about our purposes and intentions.

Online research issues exacerbated by the current revelations, on top of other news stories about hacking, include the need to consider the following:

  • Chilling recruitment. Will potential participants be reluctant to join a study, when they hear that someone who was an academic at a prestigious university was selling data to governments and political campaigns?
  • Complicating consent. If we conduct research with participants, we know the importance of informed consent. The agreement process allows us to confirm that our expectations are acceptable to the individuals who will contribute to the study. At the same time, conventional legalese documents are not effective online (Salmons, 2018). Will institutions insist on even more clauses and protections, making the agreements even more intimidating?Those who use Big Data or datasets assembled by others know how important it is to verify that the data were collected and assembled according to ethical standards appropriate to the field or discipline. What should we look for in order to avoid inadvertently using data collected in disrespectful ways?
  • Discouraging access to online groups. Researchers using Netnographic or other forms of observation often need to gain agreement from a group owner or moderator in order to interact with members and/or access archives. Will such gatekeepers lock the proverbial doors in fear of unforeseen uses of the data?
  • Retooling data protection. When I supervised doctoral students, we would chuckle at the guidance that described keeping data in a locked drawer for seven years. Now it seems like a reasonable idea. Of course one challenge for online researchers is that we sometimes use platforms or programs we don’t own, and we can’t necessarily verify that data is actually deleted from the company’s archives, even it we have downloaded data and tried to erase the online files. How can we protect sensitive information and participant identities?
  • Rethinking research dissemination. Once we’ve collected and analyzed the data, what issues should we address when presenting and publishing our findings?

What can we do to address and overcome these obstacles? See coming posts to learn practical strategies you can use. Use the comment area to share  your own ideas and approaches, and/or to suggest other ethical dilemmas you would like to see covered in future posts. As a reminder, if you register on Methodspace you will receive new posts by email.

Related post in this series: What does “informed consent” mean today?

Here are a few articles that might be of interest:

Chang, S. E., Liu, A. Y., & Shen, W. C. (2017). User trust in social networking services: A comparison of Facebook and LinkedIn. Computers in Human Behavior, 69, 207-217. doi:

Fu, P.-W., Wu, C.-C., & Cho, Y.-J. (2017). What makes users share content on facebook? Compatibility among psychological incentive, social capital focus, and content type. Computers in Human Behavior, 67, 23-32. doi:

Hays, R., & Daker-White, G. (2015). The consensus? A qualitative analysis of opinions expressed on Twitter. BMC Public Health, 15(838). doi:

Salge, C. A. D. L., & Karahanna, E. (2018). Protesting corruption on Twitter: Is it a bot or is it a person? . Academy of Management Discoveries, 4(1), 32-49. doi:10.5465/amd.2015.0121

Salmons, J. (2018). Getting to yes: Informed consent in qualitative social media research. In K. Woodfield (Ed.), Ethics in Internet mediated research. Bingley: Emerald.


Salmons books

For more on ethics and qualitative research, see my SAGE Publications books. 





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