Does it require research ethics review and specified consent?
The internet is a rich source of information for researchers. On the Web 2.0 we see extensive commentary on numerous life matters, which may be of interest to researchers in a wide range of (sub)disciplines. Research interest in these matters frequently prompts the following questions –Can I use that in my project? Hasn’t that already been published? Is research ethics review required? Is it necessary to obtain express consent for the research use?
It’s important to recognise that these questions aren’t posed in isolation. Cases like the OkCupid data scraping scandal, the Ashley Madison hack, Emotional Contagion, Cambridge Analytica and others provide a disturbing context. At a time when the use of the internet and social media is startingly high (Nielsen 2019, Australian Bureau of Statistics 2018, commentaries such as the WebAlive blog 2019), there is also significant distrust of the platforms people are using. Consequently, there are good reasons for researchers and research ethics reviewers to be cautious about use of existing material for research, even if the terms and conditions of a site/platform specifically discuss research.
Like many ethics questions, there isn’t a single simple answer that is correct all the time. The use of some kinds of data for research may not meet the National Statement’s definition of human research. Use of other kinds of data may meet that definition but will be exempt from review and so not require explicit consent. Use of other kinds of data or other uses of data that involves no more than low risk can be reviewed outside an HREC meeting and others will actually have to be considered at an HREC meeting.
AHRECS proposes a three-part test, which can be applied to individual projects to test whether a proposed use of internet data is human research and needs ethics review and this will also guide whether explicit and project-specific consent is required. If this test is formally adopted by an institution and by its research ethics committees, it would provide a transparent, consistent, and predictable way to judge these matters.
Part Two of the test relates to whether individuals have consented and will be reasonably identifiable from the data and its proposed research use and whether there are risks to those individuals. A component of this test is exploring whether an exemption from the consent requirement is necessary (i.e. as provided for by paragraphs 2.3.9 -12 of the National Statement and are lawful under any privacy regulation that applies).
Part Three of the test relates to how the proposed project relates to the national human research ethics guidelines – the National Statement – and whether there are any matters that must be considered by a human research ethics committee. For example, Section 3 of the National Statement (2007 updated 2018) discusses some methodological matters and Section 4 some potential participant issues that must be considered by an HREC.
Individually, any one of these parts could determine that review and consent is required. But meeting all three parts of the test is necessary to indicate that the work is exempt before a project can be exempted from review.
Even if the tests indicate review/consent is required, that doesn’t mean the research is ethically problematic, just a project requires for more due consideration.
The implication of this is that not all research based upon online comments or social media posts can be exempted from review but, conversely, not all such work must be ethically reviewed. The approach that should be taken depends upon project-specific design matters. A strong and justifiable institutional process will have nuanced criteria on these matters. Failing to establish transparent and predictable policies would be a serious lapse in an important area of research.
Booklet 37 of the Griffith University Research Ethics Manual now incorporates this three-part test.
In the subscribers’ area you will find a suggested question set for the three-part test, as well as a graphic overview of the work flow for the questions.
It is recommended institutions adopt their own version of the test, including policy positions with regard to the use of hacked or scraped data, or the research use of material in a manner at odds with a site/platform’s rules.
Australian agency to probe Facebook after shocking revelation – The New Daily. Accessed 16/11/19 from https://thenewdaily.com.au/news/world/2018/04/05/facebook-data-leak-australia/
Australian Bureau of Statistics (2018) 8153.0 – Internet Activity, Australia, June 2018. Retrieved from https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/mf/8153.0/ (accessed 27 September 2019)
Chamber, C. (2014 01 July) Facebook fiasco: was Cornell’s study of ‘emotional contagion’ an ethics breach? The Guardian. Accessed 16/11/19 from http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2014/jul/01/facebook-cornell-study-emotional-contagion-ethics-breach
Griffith University (Updated 2019) Griffith University Research Ethics Manual (GUREM). Accessed 16/11/19 from https://www.griffith.edu.au/research/research-services/research-ethics-integrity/human/gurem
McCook, A. (2016 16 May) Publicly available data on thousands of OKCupid users pulled over copyright claim. Retraction Watch. Accessed 16/11/19 from http://retractionwatch.com/2016/05/16/publicly-available-data-on-thousands-of-okcupid-users-pulled-over-copyright-claim/
Nielsen (2019, 26 July) TOTAL CONSUMER REPORT 2019: Navigating the trust economy in CPG. Retrieved from https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/report/2019/total-consumer-report-2019/ (accessed 27 September 2019)
NHMRC (2007 updated 2018) National Statement on Ethical Conduct in Human Research. Accessed 17/11/19 from https://www.nhmrc.gov.au/about-us/publications/national-statement-ethical-conduct-human-research-2007-updated-2018
Satran, J. (2015 02 September) Ashley Madison Hack Creates Ethical Conundrum For Researchers. Huffington Post. Accessed 16/11/19 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com.au/entry/ashley-madison-hack-creates-ethical-conundrum-for-researchers_55e4ac43e4b0b7a96339dfe9?section=australia&adsSiteOverride=au
WebAlive (2019 24 June) The State of Australia’s Ecommerce in 2019 Retrieved from https://www.webalive.com.au/ecommerce-statistics-australia/ (accessed 27 September 2019).
Recommendations for further reading
Editorial (2018 12 March) Cambridge Analytica controversy must spur researchers to update data ethics. Nature. Accessed 16/11/19 from https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-03856-4?utm_source=briefing-dy&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=briefing&utm_content=20180329
Neuroskeptic (2018 14 July) The Ethics of Research on Leaked Data: Ashley Madison. Discover. Accessed 16/11/19 from http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/2018/07/14/ethics-research-leaked-ashley-madison/#.Xc97NC1L0RU
Newman, L. (2017 3 July) WikiLeaks Just Dumped a Mega-Trove of CIA Hacking Secrets. Wired Magazine. Accessed 16/11/19 from https://www.wired.com/2017/03/wikileaks-cia-hacks-dump/
Weaver, M (2018 25 April) Cambridge University rejected Facebook study over ‘deceptive’ privacy standards. TheGuardian. Accessed 16/11/19 from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2018/apr/24/cambridge-university-rejected-facebook-study-over-deceptive-privacy-standards
Woodfield, K (ed.) (2017) The Ethics of Online Research. Emerald Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1108/S2398-601820180000002004
Zhang, S. (2016 20 May ) Scientists are just as confused about the ethics of big-data research as you. Wired Magazine. Accessed 16/011/19 from http://www.wired.com/2016/05/scientists-just-confused-ethics-big-data-research/
Gary is the principal author of the Griffith University Research Ethics Manual (GUREM) and receives a proportion of license sales.
This post may be cited as:
Allen, G. (23 November 2019) The research use of online data/web 2.0 comments. Research Ethics Monthly. Retrieved from: https://ahrecs.com/human-research-ethics/the-research-use-of-online-data-web-2-0-comments