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Etica de Investigacao Online[1]

Etica de Investigacao Online[1]

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Published by: Pedro Miguel Ventura on May 31, 2010
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 Progress in Human Geography
31(5) (2007) pp. 654–674© 2007 SAGE Publications DOI: 10.1177/0309132507081496
Developing a geographers’ agenda foronline research ethics
Clare Madge*
Department of Geography, University of Leicester, Leicester LE1 7RH, UK
Abstract:
This paper explores and advances the debate surrounding online research ethics. Theuse of internet-mediated research using online research methods has increased significantly inrecent years raising the issue of online research ethics. Obviously, many ethical issues of onsiteresearch are directly translatable to the online context, but there is also a need for existing ethicalprinciples to be examined in the light of these new virtual research strategies. Five key issues of ethical conduct are commonly identified in the literature pertaining to online research ethics:informed consent, confidentiality, privacy, debriefing and netiquette. These are the issues that aremost commonly discussed in procedural ethical guidelines for online research. However, this paperproposes that given the recent increased formal regulation and research governance over researchethics in many countries, it is important that discussion of such issues continues as an embeddedpart of professional self-regulation and procedural ethical guidelines are used as creative forumsfor reflexive debate rather than simply being routinely applied by bureaucratic ethics committees.Finally, in problematizing the role of procedural online ethical guidelines, the conclusions explorehow geographers can contribute to the future debate about online research ethics.
Key words:
confidentiality, debriefing, informed consent, netiquette, online research ethics,privacy, research governance.
*Email: cm12@le.ac.uk
   
I Introduction
Ethics is on the agenda in geography andmuch time and effort has been spent in recentyears exploring a variety of ethical issuesand approaches. This tranche of work hasproliferated in debates surrounding pedagogy(Hay, 1998a; Kearns
 et al
., 1998; Matthews
 et al
., 1998; Vujakovic and Bullard, 2001;Epprecht, 2004; Jarosz, 2004; Howitt, 2005a;Israel and Hay, 2006), political commitmentand social justice (Hay and Foley, 1998; Cloke,2002; Beaumont
 et al
., 2005; Valentine, 2005;Davies, 2006), not to mention the spatialimplications of ethical commitments andthe general moral progress of the discipline(Smith, 2000; 2001; Cutchin, 2002; Lee andSmith, 2004). More recently, the developmentof more relational modes of understandingethics and responsibilities has been the focusof attention (Popke, 2003; 2006; Barnett,2005; Brock, 2005). This broad range of re-search has resulted in Richards (2004) arguingthat ethics may be the arena that can drawtogether human and physical geography
 
Clare Madge: Developing a geographers’ agenda for online research ethics
655and this has become most apparent in thearena of research ethics. Here there hasbeen a proliferation of work exploring moralobligations to the environment (Baldwin,2004; Hillman, 2004; Richardson, 2004;Armstrong, 2006) and the ethics pertainingto research among specific social groups,such as children, indigenous groups and thosewith disabilities (Skelton, 2001; Valentine,2003; Howitt, 2005b; Gibson, 2006). Yet,while this interest in research ethics is cer-tainly vibrant, the geographical communityhas remained notably silent about the issueof online research ethics, a form of ethicsspecifically pertaining to research mediatedthrough the internet using online researchmethods.This is perhaps surprising given that Warf (2004: 44) proposes that cyberspace is oneof the key ‘cutting-edge’ issues for the geo-graphical community and more so given theburgeoning research interest in the impact andimplications of new media and information andcommunication technologies (ICT) on every-day life (Graham, 2005; and many others). So,although there has been a small but growingexpansion of geographical projects utilizinginternet-mediated research (O’Lear, 1996;Holloway and Valentine, 2000; Parr, 2002;Barker, 2005; Madge and O’Connor, 2005;Holdsworth, 2006), little has yet been writtenby geographers about the ethical issues involvedin such research.
1
But this silence is notableamong other social scientists more generally,again surprising owing to the increased formalregulation and research governance over themanagement, monitoring and sanctioningof research ethics in many countries. In theUK, for example, the Economic and SocialResearch Council (ESRC) has recently de-veloped a ‘Research Ethics Framework’ toprovide ‘clear and practical guidelines onthe principles and process of ethics reviewwithin UK social science research’ (ESRC,2005: 27) but this document completely failsto discuss the ethics associated with internet-mediated research despite the fact that thisethics framework was explicitly developedin response to ‘advances in information andcommunication technologies’, among otherissues (ESRC, 2005: 27). Similarly, in Canada,the Tri-Council Policy Statement on ‘EthicalConduct for Research involving Humans’ de-veloped by Canada’s three national fundingagencies also does not yet explicitly addressthe ethics involved in internet-mediated re-search (Kitchin, 2003). In the USA there areonly a few tentative explorations of thechallenges that internet-mediated researchposes to current Institutional Review Boardpractices (Johns
 et al
., 2004; Penden andFlashinski, 2004).
2
This paper therefore aims to address thisgap in the literature on online research ethics.Its focus is on online research methods (ORM)which include online questionnaires, virtualinterviews of various types, virtual ethno-graphies and online experiments, to mentiona few. These have been collectively termedinternet-mediated research (IMR) or onlineresearch practice (ORP). As Mann and Stewart(2000: 8) so aptly recognize: ‘Because onlineresearch practice is still in its infancy, the criticalresearcher will be confronted by quandaries atalmost every point in the research process.’Thus the debate surrounding online researchethics is a ‘work in progress’ and the ethicalchallenges are not simple. Indeed, it is clearthat many nuances to this debate will evolveas internet-mediated research becomes a moremainstream and sophisticated methodology.The focus of this paper is to explore andadvance the debate surrounding online re-search ethics, and my argument goes asfollows. The use of internet-mediated researchusing online research methods has increasedsignificantly in recent years, raising the issueof online research ethics. Obviously, manyethical issues of onsite research are directlytranslatable to the online context, but thereis also a need for existing ethical principlesto be examined in the light of these newvirtual research strategies.
3
Five key issuesof ethical conduct are commonly identifiedin the literature pertaining to online researchethics: informed consent, confidentiality,
 
656
 Progress in Human Geography 31(5)
privacy, debriefing and netiquette. These arethe issues that are most commonly discussedin procedural ethical guidelines for onlineresearch.
4
However, this paper proposes that,given the recent increased formal regulationand research governance over researchethics in many countries, it is important thatdiscussion of such issues continues as an em-bedded part of professional self-regulationand procedural ethical guidelines are used ascreative forums for reflexive debate rather thansimply being routinely applied by bureaucraticethics committees. Finally, in problematizingthe role of procedural online ethical guidelines,the conclusions explore how geographers cancontribute to the future debate about onlineresearch ethics.
II Exploring online research ethics
There is mixed opinion as to the success of internet-mediated research (Illingworth,2001; Madge and O’Connor, 2002; Hine,2005; Stewart and Williams, 2005). Thereare, however, several commonly suggestedgeneral advantages of online research. It isproposed that it enables the researcher tocontact a geographically dispersed popula-tion and so can be useful in internationalizingresearch without adding costs to the fund-ing body. It is also stated to be useful incontacting groups often difficult to reach,such as the less physically mobile (disabled,in prison, in hospital, etc) or the sociallyisolated (drug dealers, terminally ill, etc)or specific online communities. Savings incosts have been recommended (eg, costsassociated with travel, venue, data entry forquestionnaires, transcription of interviews).Moreover, according to Denscombe (2003:51), the quality of responses gained throughonline research is much the same as responsesproduced by more traditional methods, war-ranting ‘guarded optimism’ about the validityof this new methodology.But is there anything special about theonline research environment that necessitatesthe development of a set of ethical guidelinesspecifically pertaining to the virtual venue? Orcan we directly translate ethical principles fromonsite research?
5
It has been suggested thatonline research ethics raise many interestingdebates as the computer stands ‘betwixt andbetween’ categories of alive/not alive, public/private, published/non-published, writing/speech, interpersonal/mass communicationand identified/anonymous (cf. Turkle, 1984;Bruckman, 2004). These categories, of course,are not simply dichotomies, but the boundariesbetween them are blurred and fuzzy. It is theblurring of these boundaries that complicatesthe direct application of onsite ethical practicesto online research. For example, there is still nointernationally binding legal agreement as towhether online messages constitute privatecorrespondence or published public texts andwhether ‘lurking’ is a defensible online researchtechnique or if seeking consent is required in allvirtual venues. As Jones (2004: 179) suggests:‘At present for most internet researchers it islikely that gaining access is the least difficultaspect of the research process … What hasbecome more difficult is determining how toensure ethical use is made of texts, sounds andpictures that are accessed for study.’Thus, according to Hine (2005: 5), ‘Onlineresearch is marked as a special category inwhich the institutionalized understandings of the ethics of research must be re-examined’,supporting the argument that at minimum wedo indeed require discussion about the ethicalpractices specifically pertaining to the onlineenvironment. Indeed, given that ethics at itssimplest is a moral philosophy that involves‘how we systemize, defend and recommendideas about what is right and wrong,
 given the particular cultural context
’ (Thurlow
 et al
.,2004: 85, emphasis added), it might not be tooextreme to suggest that the particular culturalcontext of the internet might demand somenew thinking about what constitutes ethicalinquiry. Indeed, according to the Associationof Internet Researchers (AoIR) Ethics WorkingCommittee (quoted by Ess, 2002: 180), onlineresearch can entail greater risk to individualprivacy and confidentiality, greater challengesto a researcher in gaining informed consent and

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