Consent Important in Online Research

As a scientist, you face ethical dilemmas when studying people on the internet. What can we do to make sure we make the right decisions? This is a question professor Dag Elgesem attempted to answer.

Sara Pedersen Stene

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On January 25, ViSmedia arranged a seminar entitled “Ethics in Internet Research”. The seminar was held in Media City Bergen and Professor Dag Elgesem spoke about the problems we face when researching people on social media, and how we can try to make the right decisions regarding this.

Participants had the opportunity to discuss their own projects and dilemmas with Elgesem. The lecture was open to both employees and students. 

Ethical assessments

When facing ethical dilemmas in the research processes, Elgesem mentioned three main points to keep in mind:  Individual values, the community’s interests, and the value of research. Elgesem considers it important to take the people in question into account.

The Four Factors of Consent

An essential problem of researching people on the Internet is consent. What is consent when you get information about people online? Due to the often diffuse and unclear distinction between private and public lives in this technological setting, it may sometimes be problematic to define.

“Identification of content and individuals may be easier than we imagine.”

Elgesem referred to McKee and Porter’s model, which pointed to four factors that affect the need to obtain consent when doing the research. First, the model shows the degree of accessibility in public--the distinction between private and public. Next, consideration must be given to the sensitivity of the material and to the vulnerability of the people involved. Finally, the degree of interaction that a researcher has with the involved is also a relevant factor, and ultimately the necessity of consent is a key factor. 

As an example, Elgesem spoke about how webpages and forum with pro-ana (pro-anorexic) content can be difficult to investigate without encountering issues associated with consent.

Big Challenges Ahead

Generally speaking, it is problematic to study people on the internet and social media. Elgesem believes that there will be more focus on such issues in the future. He pointed to “big data” and argued that studying people on the internet and social media may face the biggest challenges in the next few years. Identification of content and individuals may be easier than we imagine.

He concluded by saying that “it is important for researchers to have a common value platform to stand by”.