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Making Ethical Decisions in an Online context: Reflections on using blogs to explore narratives of experience

Snee, H (2013) Making Ethical Decisions in an Online context: Reflections on using blogs to explore narratives of experience. Methodological Innovations Online, 18.

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Abstract

Internet research methods can present some challenging ethical dilemmas. Although they are subject to the same guiding principles as ‘offline’ research, it can be difficult to apply these online given the blurring of boundaries presented by digitally-mediated environments. This paper considers a study that utilised personal blogs as primary data to outline two common ethical tensions in internet research: whether online communications can be considered public or private, and whether the people who produce them can be considered subjects or authors. The study examined the narratives of young people who took gap years overseas as represented in their travel blogs. While the blogs were technically public, they contained personal information, and individual perceptions or expectations of privacy can be different. The paper also explores how to establish if human subjects are involved in internet research, including the difficulties of protecting identity and the case for recognising authorship when appropriate. In line with contemporary scholarship on internet research ethics, this paper highlights the need for a contextual approach that recognises the specificities of the communications studied, the methods employed to generate and analyse data, and how the research is disseminated. The decisions made in the gap year study are critically evaluated, and alternative options presented, including a focus on ensuring that data are not linked to individuals without consent. The article aims to contribute to dialogue and debate in online research ethics through offering some reflections on the course of action taken.

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