Progress in Human Geography 31(5)
privacy, debrieﬁng and netiquette. These arethe issues that are most commonly discussedin procedural ethical guidelines for onlineresearch.
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?
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
.,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