Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Back to University: Summary of ‘Research Ethics into the Digital Age’ Conference

Kelsey Beninger is a researcher at NatCen Social Research.

Recently I was invited to speak at Sheffield University’s ‘Research Ethics into the Digital Age’ Conference. It was an exciting opportunity, not in the least because it involved a swanky pre-conference speaker’s dinner. But really, it was exciting because the University was celebrating ten years of its research ethics committee and was launching their new purpose-built online ethics submission portal. Paper-based applications, be gone!

Usually at these type of ethics and internet mediated research events there are a diverse bunch of cross discipline and cross institution technicians, practitioners, ethical specialists, to name a few. This event had a diverse audience but in a different way; they were mostly from Sheffield University. The great turnout demonstrated how there was not only commitment to high ethical standards, but actual interest from across departments and job roles at the University. I met a few administrators that manage the huge numbers of ethics applications, members of the university research ethics committee, and students and professors galore!

The morning had a great line up of key note speakers. Professor Richard Jenkins from Sheffield University provided a nice overview of ethics in international projects around three themes:

  1. data must satisfy the host country’s legal and ethical requirements,
  2. data must satisfy your university’s REC policy, and
  3. data must satisfy the professional standards of the profession you are associated with.
Some obvious but important key points included knowing the specific cultural, legal and social laws of the country you are going to research in before you get there and keep a detailed paper trail of everything you do. Also, you share risks with any collaborators so if they don’t have governance framework in their country then discuss it early and encourage the application of your UK standards. The moral of the story: the ethical situation is more complex with international research but the responsibilities you have as a researcher with respect to ethics are the same.

Professor Joe Cannataci from the University of Malta cut the legal jargon and conveyed important points about data protection and the use of personal data from the internet. He drew on an intriguing array of international projects (one of which may have involved a funny story of him dancing his entrance to gain acceptance when meeting a rural tribe in Malaysia). He started his presentation by discussing the principle of relevance in data protection law. This is something many of us in research are familiar with- collect only the right data, collected only by the right people, at the right time and used by the right people in the right way for an agreed time. Say that 10 times fast! Of particular relevance to researchers beginning studies across Europe is knowing where the data is to be stored because there are different data protection laws in European countries compared to EU countries.

Next up was Claire Hewson from the Open University. Claire provided an overview of the challenges associated with the ethics of internet mediated research. A point that got me thinking ‘Is there truly an ‘unobtrusive’ type of data collection?’ was her distinction between obtrusive and unobtrusive methods. Obtrusive are activities such as actively recruiting individuals and those individuals knowingly partake in research. Unobtrusive methods included big data, data mining, and observations. It’s only unobtrusive because people are not aware of it in the first instance. It would become pretty obtrusive to some if participants were cognisant of what was being done with their personal data. A nice take away point from the presentation was that ‘thinking is not optional’ when it comes to applying ethical frameworks to changing online environments.

After a tasty lunch in Sheffield University’s lovely new student union building my turn was up! I delivered a session on the challenges of social media research, drawing upon recent exploratory research with users of social media (http://www.natcen.ac.uk/our-research/research/research-using-social-media-users-views/) about their views on researchers using their data in their work. I also drew on the work of the network and the survey conducted by network member Janet Salmons on researcher and practitioner views of the ethics of online research. My group explored the challenges associated with three themes: recruitment and data collection; interviewer identity and wellbeing; and analysis and presentation of data. Summarising key points that we as researchers are familiar with, I pushed the issues home by using direct examples from our exploratory research.

We wrapped up with a section on recommendations including only using social media in research if it is appropriate for your question; being transparent with participants and other researchers about risks of the research and the limitations of your sample; taking reasonable steps to inform users of your intention to utilise their data in research. Read the full list of recommendations in the report, here.

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