Lack of guidelines create ethical dilemmas in social network-based research

e! Science News has a story about an article in Science about how a Lack of guidelines create ethical dilemmas in social network-based research.

The full article by Shapiro and Ossorio, Regulation of Online Social Network Studies can be found in the 11 January, 2013 issue of Science (Vol. 339 no. 6116, pp. 144-45.)

The Internet has been a godsend for all sorts of research as it lets us scrape large amounts of data representing discourse about a subject without having to pay for interviews or other forms of data gathering. It has been a boon for those of us using text analysis or those in computational linguistics. At the same time, much of what we gather can be written by people that we would not be allowed to interview without careful ethics review. Vulnerable people and youth can leave a trail of information on the Internet that we wouldn’t normally be allowed to gather directly without careful protects.

I participated many years ago in symposium on this issue. The case we were considering involved scraping breast cancer survivor blogs. In addition to the issue of the vulnerability of the authors we discussed whether they understood that their blogs were public, or if they considered posting on a blog like talking to a friend in a public space. At the time it seemed that many bloggers didn’t realize how they could be searched, found, and scraped. A final issue discussed was the veracity of the blogs. How would a researcher know they were actually reading a blog by a cancer survivor? How would they know the posts were authentic without being able to question the writer? Like all symposia we left with more questions than answers.

In the end an ethics board authorized the study. (I was on neither the study or the board – just part of a symposium to discuss the issue.)