The ethics of online research methods

written by Caroline Tagg, Rachel Hu, Amal Hallak and Frances Rock

On 16th April Caroline and Rachel travelled from Birmingham to join Frances and Amal at the tranquil Cardiff University for a two-day workshop on ‘The Ethics of Online Research Methods’ organised by the BAAL Language and New Media SIG. This was at least the third time the project had made its presence as a team at a public event (see the ‘TLANG on tour’ blog post written by Frances Rock on January 22nd).

ethics1The TLANG presentation was scheduled on the morning of 17th April. Caroline’s introduction provided an overview of the main research activities and aims of the TLANG project. Caroline introduced the place of social media data in our research and the way in which social media data interacts with other forms of data.

Rachel and Amal then shared their ethical considerations in online data collection and analysis. One issue that they both face relates to the relationship between the researcher and the research participants. Collecting social media data necessarily adds to the participants’ workloads, particularly as they have to take on a mediating role in obtaining consent from far-flung interlocutors. This aspect of the research process may often prove socially difficult for participants who have to approach close friends and family with formal, potentially alienating requests such as signing a release form. A second issue is that of context, and the question as to whether online interactions can fully be understood without reference to the wider offline lives of participants. We also raised questions about the role of social media in disseminating research, given the unpredictable reach our research might then have.

Our presentation concluded with Frances summarising the key discussion points, asking important questions about key ethical principles and borderlines for researchers in various subfields of linguistics to ponder and debate. As Frances pointed out, drawing on Rachel and Amal’s contributions, the ethical issues we raised emerged in part from a blurring of the researcher and participant roles, with participants expected to take on research responsibilities and researchers suddenly finding themselves as the focus of attention. Frances also pointed to the responsibility of researchers to consider the wider context in the interpretation of data. Our presentation raised great interest and debate among the audience, and was also aligned very closely with the main issues arising from the wider discussion.

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Perfectly attuned to the challenges presented by new data types and collection methods, this timely workshop provided a great platform for linguistic researchers to share experiences and identify challenges and solutions relating to ethical issues pertinent to the related fields and studies. Kicking off with a cutting-edge plenary Skype talk by Professor Annette Markham from Aarhus University, Denmark, the workshop comprised a series of pecha kucha and paper presentations by scholars and delegates in the UK and abroad, exploring topics which ranged from Japanese constructions of the English language on Twitter (Amy Aisha-Brown) and constructions of motherhood on Mumsnet (Jai Mackenzie) to online rituals of mourning and commemoration (Sasha Scott) and the discourse of online ‘pick-up artists’ (Sophia Rüdiger and Daria Dayter). Other plenaries were given by Professor Alexandra Georgakopoulou (Kings College, London), Dr Claire Hardaker (Lancaster University) and Dr Stephen Pilhaja (Newman University, Birmingham).

As flagged up in Markham’s keynote, the workshop showed how ethics has moved from being a matter of regulation and of checklists towards a process approach, in which the researcher makes contextually-grounded ethically-aware decisions at every ‘critical juncture’ in their research, from the initial decision about what to research (and why) to the writing up and dissemination of results. Participants’ consent at the start of a project is not as important as their autonomy in being able to re-assess their role throughout the research, with researchers staying open to the need to ‘re-ethicise’, in Georgakopoulou’s words.

One of the talks which most impressed Rachel and Amal in particular was the plenary session given by Clarie Hardaker, who talked about her experience of having her research on online aggression and trolling covered by the national and international media. Her presentation was powerful as she used a collection of examples from those headline stories to illustrate what a shocking impact contemporary social media could have, either to build up or to tragically ruin one’s life. Her presentation reminded us of the other parties involved in the research process: as well as the researchers and the researched, there are the media, the police and institutions like the university (among others), all with different views on what constitutes ‘ethics’ and whose interventions make it impossible for a researcher to predict all the possible ways in which their research may be used.

Although the shift in thinking about ethics has been motivated in part by the development of social media technology (because, to take one example, of the way it is redefining notions of privacy not as an absolute feature of a space but as co-constructed by participants in interaction), the shift clearly has implications which go far beyond the study of digitally-mediated interactions. The need to take a ‘participant-oriented’ approach to ethical research (in Frances’ words) is an important one for us to take on board across the whole project.

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From Rachel’s point of view, “Personally it’s quite academically stimulating to have this wonderful opportunity to talk to and learn from the other researchers on their presentation skills, researching and data analysis methods. Being a new researcher, it’s particularly inspiring to hear the other researchers talk about the confusions, problems and concerns they’ve experienced in their research projects. With no one seeming to view themselves as the ethical experts, knowing everything and anything to do with ethical considerations and productions in data collection and analysis, the workshop opened up my mind by granting me the right channels and resources that I could draw on in future when facing similar problems again”.

From Amal’s point of view, “This was the second time for me to co-present about our project. The first time was when Frances and I presented in the Downscaling Culture conference, also in Cardiff. It was exciting to co-present with other members on the team as this truly enriched the team experience for me. What was even more exciting about this workshop was being able to devote some time and space to reflect on the ethical challenges we were faced with when it came to collecting social media data. This was by far the most complicated aspect of the research because of having to guide our key participants on collecting social media data meant asking them to wear our thinking hats, walk in our shoes and see the world through our eyes.

Having to prepare for the presentation was an eye-opener for me. It made me think about the data collected differently and more sensitively since I was going to share with academic public. This time I needed to borrow our key participants’ thinking hats and see the world through their eyes. This put me in an awkward position as I could not decide where my allegiance lies. However, hearing similar accounts from other researchers (e.g Jai Mackenzie, Alexandra Ntouvli and Sophia Rüdiger and Daria Dayter) about the researcher’s vulnerability was quite reassuring. In short, attending this workshop made me feel empowered by the research community.”

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