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Internet based research

What is meant by internet research?

If you intend to obtain research data from any of the following you will need to consider any data protection, data security and other ethical issues.

  • online forums
  • chat rooms
  • social media sites
  • email
  • webpages
  • video exchange sites
  • gaming sites
  • image sharing sites

If you are planning to carry out internet research  then you need to read the Association of Internet Researchers' Ethics Guide and on your ethics approval application form, you need to address the specific internet ethics issues that apply to your research.

Things to think about

  • The differences between internet data and research data
  • What is public/ private?
  • Just because material is publicly available does that mean it’s ok to use it for research purposes?
  • Think about things from the participants’ point of view – how would you feel if you were in their shoes?
  • How do you want to use the material?
  • Obtaining informed consent; practicalities, timing, how to obtain it
  • Covert research – there needs to be a good reason for carrying out covert research
  • Does the researcher need to be anonymous?
  • Anonymising participants – any limits to anonymity?
  • What do you know about the participants? Eg might they be vulnerable/ at risk in any way?
  • Possible benefits of the research
  • Terms and conditions/ ethical expectations of the venue
  • Complying with legal requirements, eg concerning data protection
  • Cultural differences.

Extract from the British Criminology Society's Statement of Ethics 2015:

"When conducting research via the Internet or via new e-technologies, be aware of the particular ethical dilemmas that may arise when engaging in these mediums. Information provided in e-social science, e-mails, web pages, social media sites, cyber-forums and various forms of ‘instant messaging’ that are intentionally public may be ‘in the public domain’, but the public nature of any communication or information on the Internet should always be critically examined and the identity of individuals protected unless it is a salient aspect of the research. Researchers should not only be aware of the relevant areas of law in the jurisdictions that they cover but they should also be aware of the rules of conduct of their Internet Service Provider (including JANET - Joint Academic Network). When conducting Internet research, the researcher should be aware of the boundaries between public and private domains, the legal and cultural differences across jurisdictions and data security when using cloud computing or commercial survey sites. Where research might prejudice the legitimate rights of respondents, researchers should obtain informed consent from them, honour assurances of confidentiality, and ensure the security of data transmission. They should exercise particular care and consideration when engaging with children and vulnerable people in Internet research."

Training courses and presentations 

Online research ethics - presentation by Dr Kevin Macnish, May 2016, IDEA CETL
Using the internet for research - presentation by Dr Alice Temple, SDDU/ IDEA CETL

Further reading