Protecting the electronic participant: ethical codes and cyber-research gone awry

Paula Roberts
University of South Australia


On-line discussion groups represent a rich data repository for social scientists, as is reflected in rapidly increasing activity in cyber-research. Existing research ethics codes for the protection of participants (for example, Commonwealth of Australia, 1999) rest on four major principles; integrity (the ethical conduct of research), respect (the process of informed consent), beneficence (maximising the benefits for research participants) and justice (the fair distribution of the project’s burdens and benefits). These principles, deemed appropriate for human subjects research in the physical world, are now found wanting when applied to cyber-research, as is indicated by case studies of virtual research projects gone awry (Kling, 1996).

This paper applies these four ethical research principles to Kling’s case studies as a means of analysing the appropriateness of transferring existing codes to the very different social and technical environments of virtual space.

First principle: integrity
Thomas (in Kling, 1996) reports an undergraduate study involving an analysis of erotica files on electronic bulletin boards and Usenet postings obtained from the private files of users on a university computer system. System operators collected other data for the study and provided demographic details of users including position (faculty, staff, student) and department. Here the electronic context provided the researcher with access to a store of personal and potentially damaging information together with unknowing research subjects who displayed naive expectations of security and privacy which were easily breached by an inexperienced and unethical researcher aided by unethical systems operators and inadequate research supervision.

Second principle: respect for participants and the process of informed consent
King (in Kling 1996) describes a project (Finn & Lavitt 1994) which examined a nationally accessible sexual-abuse-survivors support group. Data was down-loaded for analysis and publication, bypassing the vital ethical principle of gaining informed consent, with the researcher later justifying his actions by arguing that messages posted on an electronic bulletin board system are public information. This case reveals the blurred distinction of the private and public in cyberspace and highlights the disinhibiting effect of computer-mediated communication with its potential for damaging public exposure when researchers objectify their subjects and devalue their personal information (Shrum 1995).

Schrum argues that collectivities that emerge around sensitive topics should be viewed as closed groups because of their vulnerability and susceptibility to damage, and where even sensitive participant observation can be disastrous to participants’ on-line experiences, as Reid (1996) describes in her case study.

The process of informed consent protects the right of subjects to choose whether or not to participate in a study after being informed of its parameters and possible benefits or harms, and to withdraw from the study at any time. But gaining informed consent is made difficult by the shifting population of on-line groups, and where age and possible vulnerability are masked by anonymity, which may compromise both research validity and the safety of participants, who mostly are unaware that their personal data will be stored for an indefinite period in an electronic medium dependent for its security on system administrators (Reid 1996).

Third principle: beneficence, maximising benefits for the participants
As a benefit, the convenience of on-line communication may offer access to those who would otherwise be precluded from taking part in a study, and e-mail interviews make possible quick responses and clarification of concepts, thus allowing participants greater insights into the purposes and processes of the research than is possible in one-off, face-to-face interviews (Murray & Sixsmith 1998). However, the constantly changing membership of on-line communities complicates efforts to conduct debriefings and follow-up research which are necessary in order to assess the long-term benefits or harm to subjects.

Fourth principle: justice in sharing the project’s benefits and burdens
While cyber-research may provide greater inclusivity for participants in research, thereby giving them a voice (Hewson et al. 1996), the principle of justice bears directly on the selection and recruitment of participants where it is only just and right to ensure that subjects are selected for reasons directly related to the problem being studied, instead of for their easy availability, compromised position, or potential for manipulation.

While these are issues for physical as well as virtual settings, participants in on-line communities may be compromised by their easy availability and, in view of the global, social and economic disparity in Internet access and usage, achieving a fair distribution of the burden and rewards of on-line research may be impossible.

Conclusion: ‘Bottom-up’ ethical wisdom for computer-mediated social research
In these early developmental stages of an emergent cyber-research paradigm, it is imperative that a code of ethics encompass the diversity of cyber research sites and researcher goals, the complexities of the electronic medium in the generation and storage of research data, and the effects of the medium on the behaviour and expectations of research participants.

The problem of how private data can be differentiated from public data, when all data exist in the same transparent electronic medium, may remain a question to be resolved by the ethical judgement of the individual researcher, as may the selection of research participants, for although it is possible to join an on-line discussion surreptitiously for research purposes, it is no more appropriate than taping a conversation without permission (Shrum 1995).

The efficacy of developing a code of ethics for cyber-research is challenged by some theorists. Waskul & Douglass (1996) point out that ethical codes systemise ethical considerations and provide guidelines for the researcher, but are not safe havens to hide from the responsibility of making sound ethical choices.

Likewise, Allen (1996) argues that reliance on ethical guidelines may inhibit a ‘bottom up’ ethical wisdom, which is dependent for its development on concrete experience and the ethical work of everyday life rather than abstract rules (Bakhtin 1993). Allen suggests also that researchers should be required to report on the conditions that grounded their ethical choices and the consequences for their subjects of these choices.

It may be that these open reflections are the best way of building an understanding in the scholarly and wider community of the complexities of cyber-research and its ethical conduct.


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