Research Ethics & Tweets as Data

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I’ve written enough about research ethics to know what a Twitter on phonecontentious topic it is. I’ve worked with enough perplexed researchers to know how challenging it is to understand ethical theories, recognize potential dilemmas, take a position, and design truly ethical research. These issues become even more complex when data are collected on social networking sites.

Social networking sites have their own formal and informal rules, norms, and cultures. Users approach each respective site with expectations about the nature of their interactions and relationships with others– whether they are friends or strangers. Users who post on these sites have varied levels of digital literacy, particularly in regard to understanding how their posts might be used by commercial owners of the platform, advertisers– or by researchers.

It looks so easy to just copy, scrape, or download posts and images available on social media! Things are a bit cloudier when it comes to getting a study approved when such materials are to be used as data. Researchers to look to established guidelines from their respective disciplines and professional societies may find that even recently updated guidelines are inadequate when technologies (and the ways we use them) change so quickly.

Dr. Wasim Ahmed contended with these issues when completing his own doctoral research, and has been generous about sharing his insights and lessons learned. Ahmed observed:

Social media platforms such as Twitter have allowed researchers the ability to capture and retrieve data almost immediately and generate massive datasets on a range of topics. However, it is important to note that this data is often generated by human participants who could potentially be identified. It is important to have a thorough grounding of potential ethical issues.

Ahmed and colleagues contributed a chapter about Twitter as a data source for the recent book, The Ethics of Online Research (Ahmed, Bath, & Demartini, 2018). This chapter offers a well-grounded exploration of ethical questions researchers should consider when designing a study that includes such data collection. It is practical, with research cases that illustrate how these seemingly abstract ideas play out in real studies. You can read the pre-publication version of Chapter 4. (If you decide to acquire the book, you might even continue on to Chapter 5, and read my chapter on informed consent!)

You can also see Ahmed’s LSE Impact Blog post, Using Twitter as a data source: an overview of social media research tools, which was recognized as one of the top posts of 2017.

Use the comment area to share any thoughts, or to add other relevant resources.

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