Gabrielle Samuel: Research Fellow Lancaster University / Research Associate, King’s College London. Research interests: research ethics, ethical and social issues surrounding innovative biotechnologies; social media ethics; qualitative research.
Gemma Derrick: Lecturer, Department of Educational Research, Lancaster University. Research interests: Research evaluation, Qualitative research, Group/committee decision-making.
Ethics review may seem overly bureaucratic to some, but in this blog we argue that a more researcher-committee collaborative process, rather than a gatekeeper ‘tick-box’ role, may help with navigating the ‘ethics ecosystem’ when using new research tools such as social media (SM) data.
The ethics ecosystem exists as an inter-related membership of academic bodies that, when fully functional, acts to reinforce a high-level of ethical behaviour from researchers, and to guard against academic misconduct. Specifically, this ethics ecosystem can be described as all the individuals (researchers), organisations (research institutions/research ethics committees (RECs)) and external bodies (publishing houses, funding bodies, professional associations) which promote ethically responsible research behaviour in the academy. Ordinarily, the academy’s ethics ecosystem works well due to a shared understanding of what ethically responsible research behaviour is. However, this system breaks down when new ideas, methods or approaches are introduced to its members, and each player interprets and enforces theses ideals of ethical behaviour differently. This forces each member to re-examine concepts previously thought to be set in ethical stone. Such is the case of SM research.
Currently this system is failing SM research
Our research has spoken to members at all levels of the ethics ecosystem; researchers using SM data, research ethics committee members, universities, funding bodies, publishing houses and journal Editors, and we found that members possessed inconsistent understandings of ethics applicable to the use of SM in research. There were different interpretations of the established ethical notions of consent (should we ask for it? shouldn’t we? when and how should we?) and privacy (how, or even should, SM users’ data be protected, and to what degree?); some members viewed SM data as ‘fair game’, while others were more cautious; and only some shouldered responsibility to protect SM users’ perceived privacy. What was lacking was an overarching understanding reinforced by a larger governance body as a mechanism to fuel a wider, community-led understanding about ethical conduct (and misconduct) towards SM research.
At the research level of the ecosystem, researchers’ were monitoring their own decisions about how best to act ethically. However, when left to their own devices this over-reliance on subjective monitoring of behaviour risks the development of a form of “personal ethics”, which would be different for each researcher within this ecosystem;
Interviewer: Are there any guidelines that you follow in your own research?
Researcher: It’s my guidelines. Everybody has their own definition of ethics….
This became dangerous when the acceptability of these decisions were related to how strongly researchers justify them, rather than being dependent on conduct checks and balances available by a wider, community-led ethical understanding of SM research;
You’ve got to develop the sense of what's right…then put that across and make your case’
The differing interpretations of personal ethics dovetailed at the institutional level of the ecosystem, when researchers had to, or chose to submit their research proposal to a REC for consideration. Committee members, as actors in this level of the ecosystem, spoke about their lack of experience in reviewing this type of research simply because so few proposals are submitted (due to the differing researcher interpretations of whether ethical review was required). As such REC judgements of ethical conduct relied heavily on researchers’ justifications of ethical decision-making within the application;
We…sometimes make different decisions even for projects that look pretty similar. It’s how they build up their case doing that particular project
The same held true for other members of the ethics ecosystem, such as the Journal editors and, by extension, peer-reviewers.
To summarise, what does this wide disagreement around SM research mean for the ethics ecosystem? After all, there is nothing wrong with ethical norms being driven by researchers’ different subjective justifications of their personal ethics a.k.a ethical pluralism. However, for SM research, and similar new research tools, reliance on researchers’ justifications of ethical behaviour can be dangerous as it risks leaving important ethical decisions in limbo, and allows for ethically problematic research to fall between the cracks.
What is needed is more governance within the ethics ecosystem. Only then can enough checks and balances exist to ensure best practice, promote a shared understanding of SM research ethics, and provide necessary audits to protect against scientific misconduct.
One step towards this is to require researchers to submit for ethics review to provide an extra layer of scrutiny. More importantly, it provides REC members with the tacit knowledge necessary to act as this larger arbitrator of ethical conduct for SM research.