The internet and web are technologies that connect humans to humans via a computer. When training as an academic, I became very interested in the ethical implications of online research, at a time when there wasn’t much out there for fledgling PhD researchers like me. In short: it’s a minefield. In long: there’s now a set of guidelines covering the issues that is available from the British Psychological Society.

I am proud and honoured to have been part of the working group on the Conducting Research on the Internet: Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research. If you’re interested in doing online research, I urge you to read this document in order to protect the people – not computers, not accounts, but people that you are studying.

Here’s a taste of what’s covered, from the Executive Summary:

Internet-mediated research (IMR) can raise particular, sometimes non-obvious, challenges in adhering to existing ethics principles. In this document we outline some of the key ethics issues which researchers and research ethics committees (RECs) are advised to keep in mind when considering implementing or evaluating an IMR study. Considering each of the four main ethics principles as outlined in the Society’s Code of Human Research Ethics, we highlight issues which may need special consideration in an IMR context, using illustrative examples to explain why. These issues include: the public-private domain distinction online; confidentiality and security of online data; procedures for obtaining valid consent; procedures for ensuring withdrawal rights and debriefing; levels of researcher control; and implications for scientific value and potential harm. Emphasis throughout is on offering advice on how to think about and apply existing ethics principles in an IMR context, while recognising that issues need to be assessed and decisions made within the context of a particular piece of research.

Read on.