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Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
The Information Society (TIS) includes a substantial forum about the ethical issues
of collecting social science data in electronic forums. These papers appear in
a Forum on The Ethics of Fair Practices for Collection Social Science Data in
Cyberspace that Jim Thomas kindly
organized at my request. There is increasing attention to the social dynamics
of groups on-line, diverse electronic forums, virtual communities, and so on.
These forums have become the foci of leading edge social science research, as
well as important social commentary and even regulation (such as bans on pornography).
In the last two decades, social scientists have developed fundamental canons
against deceptive data gathering, informed consent, and revelation of potentially
harmful information. Some of these are embodied in Federal guidelines that are
required for "human subjects research" at US universities. But the conditions
of research and the tailoring of such guidelines vary from one field to another.
For example, clinical psychologists often study people who can be manipulated
by researchers, while political scientists who study elite national leaders
face the complementary risk of being coopted by the subjects of their studies.
Further, the ethical guidelines to for face-to-face studies may not make sense
for social studies of electronic forums without some alteration.
Research ethics are normally a specialty topic with relatively little public
interest. But the question of what kinds of consent are required for social
research in Cyberspace suddenly became quite public in the Spring of 1995 when
Carnegie-Mellon undergraduate Martin Rimm released a controversial study about
the exent to which computer bulletin board systems and the Internet wee used
to exchange pornographic pictures. Rimm's study was to be published in the Georgetown
Law Journal, and it briefly became the centerpiece of national debate in the
U.S. It was the foca point of a July 1995 Tim Magazine cover story about "cyberporn,"
and was the subject of speeches in the U.S. Congress. Rimm's study was also
attacked by scholars and civil liertrians for deep methodological flaws and
potential violations of human subjects guidelines by analysts writing in Harper's
Magazine an the New Republic, as well as popular computer magazines, and --
of course -- diverse Internet newsgroups.
Rimm's study is a bit of a red herring because it is methodologically flawed
and not conducted as part of a serious research program. But social analysts
who want to investigate questions about social behavior in Cyberspace -- such
as changes in the distribution and use of power in on- line groups, the nature
of gender relations, how groups define and shift or maintain their identities
-- face serious questions about what kind of consent they must obtain from people
who post messages in various forums, especially those that are nationally accessible.
The seed paper for this forum is Storm King's "Researching Internet Communities:
Proposed Ethical Guidelines for the Reporting of Results." King was concerned
by episodes like this:
The journal Social Work With Groups ... includes an article [about sexual
abuse survivors with ] ... a thorough analysis of a nationally accessible cyberspace
support group ... the results are potentially of great interest to anyone researching
grou p dynamics or sexual abuse survivors. However, for the members of the group
studied ... this report is a potential nightmare. The authors downloaded, analyzed
and reprinted notes, with no request to the group for permission .... The exact
date and times that sample notes were posted, as well as the name of the group,
appear in the published results. ... The authors state that since "messages
posted on a BBs (bulletin board systems) are public information", that changing
the names on the sample messag es they reprinted would insure the privacy of
the BBs users.
King suggested a specific set of guidelines for researchers based, in part, of
a careful reading of the American Psychological Association's (1982) "Ethical
Principals In the Conduct of Research with Human Participants" and experience
in conducting research about social life on-line. I felt that King's provocative
paper could be the seed of timely discussion amongst social researchers. I invited
sociologist Jim Thomas to organize a special section of TIS that would examine
the ethical issues of data collection in cyberspace. Jim organized a diverse group
of social scientists (Dennis Waskul, Sharon Boehlefeld, Susan Herring, Elizabeth
Reid and Christina Allen) who conduct research in electronic forums to identify
key ethical issues and to propose meaningful guidelines. As part of his effort,
Jim organized a LISTSERV for the authors to discuss their concerns and positions
while they were drafting their papers. The LISTSERV served as a lively discussion
medium for a monthlong period while the participants were shaping and refining
The debates helped the participants see how their positions reflected different
ethical theories, as well as different disciplinary and paradigmatic preferences.
In his introduction to the special section, Jim observes:
The offerings here illustrate how diverse ethical theories can lead to different
views over which, or even whether, formal guidelines are needed for online research.
King and Waskul, grounded in a deontological theories, argue that formal rules
are needed . Boehlefeld, Herring, Reid, and Thomas, preferring a teleological
approach, judge that broad principles of social good rather than invariant precepts
are better. Allen, flirting with postmodernism, would privilege neither rules
nor broad guidelines. Ins tead, she sees ethics as embedded within, and emerging
out of dialogue with, the specific group under study.
Jim's electronic discussion group can be used for critiques, and comments can
be debated or clarified. TIS readers are invited to join in the discussion by
sending this message to firstname.lastname@example.org:
The discussion archives can be accessed at:
http://www.soci.niu.edu/~archives. TIS will serve as a forum and publication
outlet for continuing deliberations on the ethics of collecting data in electronic
forums and workable professional guidelines. Jim
Thomas will work with me in reviewing significant commentaries on these articles
as well as new contributions.
We believe that these issues are critical and that members of the social science
and information processing commmunities that do such reserach should play a
key role in helping to define the issues and recommend guidelines that respect
the rights of participants/informants and also facilitate high quality research
on important social issues and theories. Please contact us with short notes,
specific proposals, and articles of varying length.
TIS 12(2) concludes with reviews of four books:
The next TIS issue, 12(3), will include an articles about NII policies in Taiwan
and the cultural construction of NII developments in Japan. The Forum is a continuing
feature of TIS. Associate Editor Mark Poster has organized a Forum that examines
the controversial position paper, "Cyberspace and the American Dream: A Magna
Carta for the Knowledge Age" by Esther Dyson, George Gilder, George Keyworth,
and Alvin Toffler.
- American Technological Sublime, by David Nye (reviewed by Geoff
- Software by Design, by Harold Salzman and Stephen Rosenthal (reviewed
by Stuart Shapiro);
- Who Owns Information? From Privacy to Public Access, by Ann Wells
Branscomb (reviewed by Sheizaf Rafaeli); and
- The Jobless Future: Sci-Tech and the Dogma of Work, by Stanley Aronowitz
and William DiFazio (reviewed by Rebecca Grant).
A description of TIS 12(3) is posted on TIS' new Indiana University-based home
page (see http://www.slis.indiana.edu/TIS).
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