About a month ago, I attended the American Society for Information Studies and Technology. One of the sessions that was most intriguing was "The Ethics of Studying Online Communities: Challenges to Research Design and Data Collection," presented by Hsin-liang Chen, Sheila Denn, Ken Fleischmann, Jean Preer, and Barbara Wildemuth.
They asked a series of questions:
- Is it appropriate to use comments from online communities for research purposes?
- How do we validate the reliability of those comments?
- Who can grant researchers permission to use the comments?
- Is the current IRB procedure suitable for online community studies?
- How do researchers obtain IRB approval for projects that will take place in a dynamic research environment?
- How can we address emerging professional ethics issues regarding online community studies?
The question that I found most interesting, however, was: When is a research participant a "human subject"? Do avatars and personas (i.e. in World of Warcraft or in Second Life) count as "human"? If they do, do children require extra protection? How can we tell "real" people from bots while conducting research? Are people replying as themselves or as their personas?
These questions gave me lots of food for thought, so I figure I'd post them for you all to think about too. I haven't come to many conclusions, but I also don't do research in online communities.
Being Canadian, I assume there's a difference between how our Canuck ethics boards see things and the regulations in other countries. The panalists were all American, so I only got the US view. I'd love to hear from people outside the US and Canada on how they approach research ethics in virtual environments.