Ethics of Online Research
Guidelines on the use of online environments and digital platforms for conducting research
The University is interested in the protection of the rights, dignity, health, safety, wellbeing and privacy of research participants. To ensure the protection of participants whilst using online environments and digital platforms, it is important to analyse and conduct a risk assessment on the virtual space in which the research is being conducted, as you would the physical space of a research site.
Reasonable steps should be taken to ensure that research participants are safe and that the risk associated with using online/digital platforms has been clearly communicated. The risks might include the ways in which many digital platforms and apps gather our personal information (‘data’) and the degree to which the participants’ rights could be compromised. Whilst privacy statements are common to communicate policies on accessing online platforms, these are often quickly agreed to in pursuit of access. Researchers should do what they can to obtain fully informed consent about these virtual environments, particularly as we are the ‘data controllers’, while platforms are ‘data processors’ of the ‘data’.
For example, when scraping/mining data from social media, researchers have to consider and inform participants about:
- whether the available data is also public and whether it is fair to use it in research;
- risk of harm through tracing or exposing the social media user’s identity and profile;
- degrees of anonymity. Anonymised data sets may make individuals identifiable if they contain enough personal information
Publicly accessible data does not mean that it can be processed by anyone for any purpose. When assessing whether data is private or open for use or, keep in mind the online environment in which it is posted and the reasonable expectations of privacy which the user may have had.
The University supports certain digital platforms, please contact the University’s Data Compliance Unit firstname.lastname@example.org for the most up to date information regarding University supported online/digital platforms.
In some circumstances it may not be possible to use the University supported platforms. If this is the case, then please review the platform privacy statement and data collection policy, so that decisions about platform choices are informed. It is important that the University knows what information is being collected about users and participants before inviting them into a digital space. For example: look for any indicators that personal information will be collected, how it will be used, with whom it will be shared, and how/ where it is stored.
If you use a platform for your research that is not provided by the University, such as Zoom, Facebook, or WhatsApp, please be clear about the need to communicate, in accessible and digestible terms, the data implications of bringing people into these spaces. Check the terms and conditions for privacy, anonymity, data protection, and so on.
Guidance on Online Research
Research in the Social Sciences and Humanities is highly diverse. The contexts in which such research will be conducted will likewise be diverse, as will the methods employed. The following are recognised norms of research ethics which can be used as a framework to guide the research process in online research environments (please also refer to SREC policies on research ethics, this outline is based on Internet Research Ethical Guidelines Association of Internet Researchers. Refer to this for more detail.)
It is important to check what Legal Aspects such as GDPR; Terms and Conditions of each platform are, particularly as they may change as the technology advances, and in response to legal requirements.
Use of Microsoft Teams and Other Tools, for Teaching and to Conduct Academic Research
It is important to consider information governance and data privacy when using MS Teams or any other remote conferencing tools. Please refer to the University’s Data Protection and Information Security for further details.
Due to the emerging use of remote conferencing and communication tools for teaching, training and research activities, the Information Compliance Unit has prepared some further guidance to help ensure adherence to the Data Protection Act 2018 (DPA 2018) and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
Please remember that the use of Zoom (www.zoom.us) is restricted.