Navigating the AER Conference: Internet Research Sessions

by Courtney Jarboe, PRIM&R Blog Squad member

PRIM&R is pleased to bring you blog posts from the PRIM&R Blog Squad during the 2010 Advancing Ethical Research Conference. The PRIM&R Blog Squad will be blogging every day from the conference, so continue to check back for updates.

If you are attending this year’s AER Conference, and missed the pre-conference session Navigating Research Regulations and Research Ethics in the Internet Age, I strongly encourage you to attend one of the several sessions during the regular conference that cover internet research issues. 

Many of the presenters from today’s session will be facilitating similar sessions in a condensed format. If you are interested in conducting internet research, or you are an IRB member reviewing internet-based research protocols, these sessions have a lot to offer on key issues such as informed consent, privacy and confidentiality, data ownership, and data management. 

I would like to highlight the presentation made by Montana Miller, PhD, an assistant professor at Bowling Green State University. Her presentation included the complexities of Facebook surrounding privacy and consent issues, as well as Webkinz regarding validity of research data.

The major point I took from Dr. Miller’s presentation was, “it’s not what you can do, but what you should do.” While data may be publicly available, IRBs and researchers cannot make assumptions about any given online environment. Dr. Miller argues, “researchers must evaluate the context, weigh the factors, and come to an ethical stance in each particular case. Ideally, they should discuss and share ethical norms with others in their field and in the field of internet research ethics in general. They must consider (and be prepared to explain to IRB reviewers) the subjects’ experience and expectations.”

While there are not regulations or guidance specific to internet activities, Elizabeth Buchanan, PhD, associate professor at UW-Milwaukee, introduced an impressive project, Internet Research Ethics Digital Library, Research Center, and Commons. The mission of this project is to “push the boundaries of traditional research ethics issues, allowing transformative models for managing internet research. It exists to provide sound resources, a solidified research base, and expert advice as more researchers and more IRBs/ethics boards struggle with the complexities of Internet research ethics.”

While there were no absolute solutions to some of the issues that were raised, I think this pre-conference program gave me many resources and examples to share with my fellow IRB colleagues. In addition, the course emphasized that there isn’t a right or wrong answer to internet research issues. Instead, it’s about having the discussion and really considering ethics in relation to the population and the method of research.

And for those of you who are onsite at AER, here are some upcoming Internet Research sessions at the conference:

Tuesday December 7
C25: Shifting Ground in the Qualitative Research Fields: Ethnography, Oral Histories, Internet Communities, and More

Wednesday December 8
E10: Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube: Wrangling with New Ethical Ropes, as Internet Research Gallops Forward