The Information Society


Letter from the Editor-in-Chief Rob Kling
12(2) 1996

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: 

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 their papers. 

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: 

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 The discussion archives can be accessed at: 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. 

A description of TIS 12(3) is posted on TIS' new Indiana University-based home page (see 

Home | Table of Contents | Editorial Letters