Whenever you do research on actual human beings, you have to get approval from the university that your research is in line with ethical standards. In your typical undergraduate class, you learn, usually via a really goofy video about the Stanford prison experiment or the Milgram experiment, that the two pillars of ethical research are 1) Do no harm and 2) Informed voluntary consent. Of course, these are good ethical principles to adhere to, but as with everything in life, adhering to these things can be a slippery slope. Unless of course, you are doing research on the use of advanced statistical methods by baseball fans. Typically, when you are just doing interviews, there is an exemption form that you can fill out and the university gives it a once over and off you go. However, I have been thinking that another way of gathering data would be through various online forums that SABR or Baseball Prospectus hosts. I figure that there is already lively discussion about the things I am looking at, so it would be a good source of background information and some ideas for interview questions. Unfortunately for me, that means I cannot get the exemption and I have to go through the whole human subjects approval protocol, which involves a much longer application and a bigger pain in my ass.
Not that I mind that much, I understand the need for it. Kinda. The compliance officer that I spoke to today said that there are two issues about online research that make it a grey area. First she said is the issue of getting informed consent. Even though I would make it clear in my first post that I would be using the responses for research, people may or may not get around to reading it or understanding it. The second issue is confidentiality in that I would have no control over what other people who have access to the bulletin board do with the information that is disclosed.
I guess the issue here is whether the internets are considered a public place. I mean, it’s not like I’m going undercover and tricking people in disclosing information that they normally wouldn’t. And in a real sense, I think that things like internet forums are a public place. Don’t people kinda already give consent to have their comments analyzed by other people by placing it in a place where pretty much anyone with internet access can see it? We wouldn’t need human subjects approval if I were doing a content analysis on magazine articles. Really, what’s the difference? The only thing I could come up with is the University doing everything in its power to ward off any kind of lawsuit. Which seems like the wrong reasons. Don’t get me wrong, I understand the need for internal controls and the financial ramifications of a lawsuit, but it seems that this kind of stuff, by most reasonable standards would be considered ethical, even if I didn’t tell people I was looking over their comments for research purposes. It just seems to me that the rationale of “we don’t know how the internet works” is a a flimsy one. Especially in terms of the concept of public places, when we have everyone from cops to job recruiters to potential boy/girlfriends looking up people’s myspace page for personal info.
Anyways, if you are interested (although I could not imagine why you would be), you can download and look at my human subjects research application (PDF 62kb). As always, if you have any kind of feedback, please leave a comment.
I’m so sorry for having all this logistical crap. I promise the next post will be a substantive one.