Setting the Norms of Internet-based Survey Research

Originally posted on Social Science Space as part of the SAGE Inspire series

An assessment of the real-world impact of …

“Online Survey Tools: Ethical and Methodological Concerns of Human Research Ethics Committees”

By Elizabeth Buchanan and Erin Hvizdak

A survey of 750 university human Research Ethics Boards (HRECs) in the United States revealed that Internet research protocols involving online or Web surveys are the type most often reviewed (94% of respondents), indicating the growing prevalence of this methodology for academic research. … The paper concludes with considerations and suggestions towards consistent protocol review of online surveys to ensure appropriate human subjects protections in the face of emergent electronic tools and methodologies.

Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics (JERHRE) 4(2), 37-48. First published June 1, 2009

SAGE Publishing describes many ways of measuring “real world” impact in the social sciences – one such approach being the person-centred model, because “the best way to transmit knowledge is to wrap it up in the human being.”

If we use this approach, then it’s safe to say that Elizabeth Buchanan – the endowed chair in ethics and director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout — fills this criteria of “real world” impact perfectly for internet-based research ethics. From the beginnings of the field some 30 years ago, she has been a key international figure, driving discussions about how to negotiate the research ethics of using internet, social media, and big data-based methodologies. Her co-authorship on the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) research ethics guidelines, specifically the 2012 document, no doubt played some part in in them becoming the most consulted guidelines for Internet research internationally.

Elizabeth Buchanan is an associate editor at JEHRE and endowed chair in ethics and director of the Center for Applied Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.

Elizabeth’s 2009 Journal of Empirical Research on Human Research Ethics paper, co-authored with Erin Hvizdak, entitled “Online survey tools: ethical and methodological concerns of human research ethics committees,”took on the then emerging concerns of research ethics committees (REC) and institutional review boards (IRB) with the ethical and methodological concerns related to online survey tools. Today, these are a passing concern, ubiquitous in the research environment, but in the early 2000s commercial survey tools were presenting ethical challenges and RECs/IRBs were unclear how others were managing those concerns. Elizabeth and Erin took on this work based on the results of a National Science Foundation grant directed by Elizabeth and Charles Ess (who was co-author of the first AoIR Ethics Guidelines).

At the time of publication, scholars had already been writing about how internet-mediated research blurs the boundaries around the “traditional” notions of consent and privacy, but this large U.S. empirical study provided insight into the state of play “on the ground.” Since this publication, the field of Internet research ethics has grown – providing more empirical evidence regarding IRB/REC views, and expanding and contextualizing the issues, but these have only served to expand on the issues written here and by others at the time.

This 2009 JERHRE paper was amongst the first papers to start providing practical tips for researchers and RECs working/reviewing in this area and therefore, in terms of “real world” impact, this paper does not disappoint: while it may be difficult to evidence the changes made to the field of Internet research ethics as a result of this paper, with so many downloads, citations, etc., it is clear that it has been a “go to” paper for students, researchers and RECs as they negotiate the ethical issues in this field.

Strangely, when Elizabeth considers this paper, she sees it as a lifetime ago, in internet time. We have progressed through the social media phase, landed largely in the big data and now encounter more and more artificial intelligence, forcing us as researchers and IRB/REC members to question the ethics of artificial agents, machine learning, and more.

As more and more researchers are entering the field of internet-based research, the tips provided in Elizabeth and Erin’s paper remain the same. The paper has been an invaluable part of the process as we continue to work towards a legitimate Internet research ethics.  

JERHRE has played a solid role in presenting research in the field.  Elizabeth and I are finalizing a forthcoming special JERHRE issue on social media research ethics, which we hope will illustrate and examine ongoing ethical and methodical issues and challenges in contemporary  internet-based research, and hopefully point towards best practice resolutions for researchers and IRBs/RECs.

When I asked Elizabeth about her research and her involvement in the field, she paused.

“It is amazing how much has happened in this ethics space. It is now commonplace to discuss the ethics of data security, data breaches, privacy, regardless of discipline. Ethics, as always, is transcendent.  Now, we talk about data as a science, its own unique field.  For a while the reality has been that ‘human subjects research’ means much more across disciplines: disparate disciplines realize they are embedded and must be attendant to research ethics, and the human element, whether they call that data, information, statistics, or something else. Internet, social media, big data, AI. There will be yet another hot topic with its own scandals and shockers, just like the AOL data release, the Facebook Contagion study or the OK Cupid debacle. What happens in between those cases is more important. Ethics review committees have a unique opportunity to influence research. Let’s continue learning from and educating each other.”

With special thanks to Dr Elizabeth Buchanan, associate editor, JERHRE