The issue of ethical human subjects research in online communities has been a particular interest of mine since I started my academic career. I’ve written book chapters on it, presented papers at various public and academic events on it, and sat on BPS committees supporting it. And now, I’m doing some pre-emptive research for some writing and editing I’ll be doing on the subject in 2010.

I recently delved into the biannual International Journal for Internet Research Ethics and found two articles that describe the problems with applying traditional ethics qualifications to online research designs. The first comes from an article written by Heidi McKee and Jim Porter, who published a book on this very topic last year. They present an interesting typology that highlights the differences between what Institutional Research Boards (in the US) and Ethics Committees (in the UK and elsewhere) and what Internet researchers like me view as important to consider when conducting ethical research. From their article, Playing a Good Game: Ethical Issues in Researching MMOGS and Virtual Worlds:

ethics review boards tend to focus, appropriately enough, on possible harm to subjects, with the key focus being on risks associated with the end of the research process — i.e., with identification through publication of results, and resulting loss of privacy, exposure to ridicule and embarrassment, etc. Thus, researchers who are using deidentified or aggregated data often believe that there is no risk to participants and that, therefore, review boards have no just cause to question the protocol for such studies. If the subjects aren’t identified (or identifiable), what possible risks are there?

However, the MMOG and VW researchers we interviewed had a different focus of concern altogether. They were not unconcerned about harms resulting from publication and presentation, but in their interviews they talked mostly about possible harms during data collection — and they expressed just as much concern about harm to the community, the collective of individuals, as to individual subjects (see Table 2). Their main focus of concern was, first, to protect the entire community (as well as individuals in it) and, secondly, not to impair future research. Thus, their decisions about research ethics were guided by a slightly different set of priorities.

In the Ethics section of my Methods chapter, I described why:

Internet methodologists have described virtual communities as extremely sensitive; a breach in trust can destabilise the foundations upon which the online group rests, and some research and media activity has caused the undoing of previously thriving online interactions (Whiteman, 2007; White, 2002). Goal-oriented online communities and social networking sites have a stronger sense of stability than social virtual worlds because they are predicated upon the pre-determined goal systems bestowed by the designers or upon relationships developed offline. Social virtual worlds rest upon the social collectives that exist within their boundaries. Ethical transgressions can result in power shifts and mass migrations in protest of research activity to other sites can change the fabric of the community.

Justin M. Grimes, Kenneth R. Fleischman, & Paul T. Jaeger extend this in their contribution to the IJIRE, Virtual Guinea Pigs: Ethical implications of Human Subjects Research in Virtual Worlds. They argue that participants in these communities can indeed come to ‘virtual harm’, and they describe the damage that research can do to the social ecology, as well as to the individual. A member’s emotional attachment to others in the space, to his/her avatar and to the community itself should have implications for how research is designed conducted and indeed, as the results indicated in my first study, personal and social harm can come to individuals whose online identity is breached: the control that an s/he maintains over the online identity implicates how trustworthy and credible others view them, and can have a lasting impact on his/her reputation in the virtual world.

The authors also raise other issues, like the motivations participants have in engaging with the community, and the potential real-world economic and financial damage that research conducted in online environments may have. Finally, they describe the challenge in defining the public versus the private space in online environments.

Both of these articles are excellent primers on deeper issues of ethical internet research, and highlight the importance of recognising the humans behind the terminals when designing vehicles of study.