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Getting down to business – ethical considerations

This is the first of 2 blog posts I have it in mind to write – the other will be looking at structuring and planning my study with ethical considerations and methodology in mind.

I’ve just read a number of articles (see below) that are connected with online research ethics and I want to capture some of the main points that seem of most relevance to me and to the research I am planning.  This is very much a first take, but I hope the process will help me focus on the ethics permissions I will need, the arguments that need to be constructed, and the nature of the contexts I will be working in.

One of the main things that comes across in all the articles is that it isn’t possible to easily transfer physical world practices into the virtual world. Some things which are important in the physical world may have less relevance in the virtual world and vice versa. Similarly, it isn’t possible to lay down hard and fast guidelines for all virtual world and online communities research both because virtual worlds and online  communities differ from each other and ethical considerations have to be thought about alongside the planning of the study and its methodology.

A second, and equally important consideration is that informed consent may mean something different to participants in an online setting from what it means in a physical world setting. The very honest account (Reid, 1996) of how research can impact an online community is worth consideration, and although I do not anticipate handling the kind of sensitive data Reid did, nevertheless possible unintended consequences for participants do need to be considered.

A third point made in several places is the need for familiarity with the online environment being studied – the dangers of simply using a virtual environment for data gathering without understanding the dynamics of the community are described. It is essential to take time to become an accepted participant. In general, the online communities I am focussing on are ones in which I have had a lengthy engagement – I have been a member of some of the 2-D email lists for around 10 years and I have been active in the Second Life community for nearly 3 years. On the other hand, I have not participated directly in Club Penguin and my knowledge of the environment is restricted to a single demonstration and 2 presentations; this may have implications for whether or not to include CP in my studies and needs to be thought about and discussed.

I found the diagrams (McKee & Porter, 2009) very useful in focusing my mind, especially when combined with the application of ethical considerations to all parts of the research process (Knobel, 2003).  Both articles recognise that the principle concern focus or IRB is on potential risk to human subjects by way of loss of privacy, harm of exposure, ridicule and embarrassment. In the online world, effects on the community are equally important and possible reactions of the community leading suspicion of researchers and unwillingness to participate in other projects or to continue involvement in current one.

An early consideration is the nature of the place/space in which the research is being undertaken. Perceptions of virtual environments vary, but I would argue that Second Life (and virtual worlds in general) are places rather than just spaces and that the nature of the community in the email list groups I am interested in moves these also from more than just places. The next question is whether the places are public or private.  Some of the email lists are private in that a moderator has to approve membership of the list and a username and password is needed to access the archives, while others are public in that anybody may join and access the archives. Second Life is more complex in that some areas are very definitely open access while others may have some restrictions, either by requiring a group membership in order to enter them, or because they are only used by particular groups while remaining open access. It is also possible that the development of the new adult regions and opening up more of the grid to u-18s (I’m not quite sure how or when this will happen) will affect access.

Linked with the public/private dimension of places is the sensitivity of data and whether it is obtained publicly or privately. Much of what I want to do in Second Life will involve observation in public spaces but the edges become blurred with casual conversation relevant to my research in those spaces.  Clearly any interviews, wherever they are undertaken, cross the boundary to private as do any focus group discussions.

A further element of privacy is avatar identities.  Although these are aliases, there are avatars who are well known within the Second Life community and beyond. Similarly, some avatars are instantly recognisable if shown in images.Thought will need to be given to what has to be anonymised and when it is appropriate to use an avatar name, for example quoting from a formal interview by permission when the informant has been recruited because of their high profile position in the SL community. I would see this paralleling the physical world where anonymity should be the norm, but expertis might be specifically cited.

I also need to think about my own identity.  My SL profile does not hide who I am, but it could be more specific an probably needs re-writing to provide more information and pointers to where more information can be obtained, eg a link to this blog. I may also want to use my profile to invite contact from people interested in being involved in my research. A notecard providing a summary would be useful to be able to give to interested avatars. I also need to pay attention to my role – when am I in SL as researcher, when as resident, when as teacher, etc.

The articles give attention to informed consent but none of them actually suggest how this should be obtained, not dealing with the sticky issue of avatars being seen as persons in their own right, rather than as substitutes for the person operating them. In this respect, Boellstorff (2008) is helpful as he provides a copy of the consent form he used which was signed by avatars using their screen names and he had no link to the human identity behind the avatar.  This also avoids any potential conflict with the Linden Labs Code of Conduct in respect of avatar privacy.

In Second Life, the procedure for getting permission is relatively clear. Apart from needing ethics committee approval, it is individual avatars who are involved. The position is less clear with email groups. Public email lists are public places, but if individuals are being quoted, it is only appropriate to ask their permission.  Does the same apply when a snippet of conversation is used to illustrate a point, or a conversation summarised without reference to the posters? For private email lists, I assume the initial approach should be to the moderator with a clear explanation, and possibly examples of how I might use data, prior to any approach to the list.

The final diagram in McKee and Porter is useful in suggesting that the 3 dimensions of degree of interaction, topic sensitivity and public or private have to be considered in determining whether informed consent is necessary in any given situation.

Knobel focuses more on planning the study and my next posting will be initial thoughts on planning, methodology and the ethical considerations.

Articles and books referred to in preparation of posting:

Boellstorff, T. (2008). Coming of age in second life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human. Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Cavanagh, A. (1999). Behaviour in public? : ethics in online ethnography. Cybersociology, 6. Retrieved from http://www.cybersociology.com/files/6_2_ethicsinonlineethnog.html
Knobel, M. (2003). Rants, Ratings and Representation: ethical issues in researching online social practices. Education, Communication & Information, 3(2), 187.
McKee, H. A. & Porter, J. E. (2009). Playing a good game: ethical issues in researching MMOGs and virtual worlds. International Journal of Internet Research Ethics, 2(1), 5 -37.
Reid, E. (1996). Informed Consent in the Study of On-Line Communities: A Reflection on the Effects of Computer-Mediated Social Research. The Information Society: An International Journal, 12(2), 169 – 174.
Sheehy, K., Ferguson, R. & Clough, G. (2007). Learning and teaching in the panopticon: ethical and social issues in creating a virtual educational environment. International Journal of Social Sciences, 2(2), 89-96.

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