Online research: the dangers

Academics face issues around privacy and identity in the digital world

April 9, 2015

Source: Reuters

Identity check: it’s easy for someone to assume another persona online

Academics are increasingly carrying out their research online, using tools that allow them to reach more people more efficiently than before.

It is no surprise. The internet gives scholars wanting to conduct surveys or observe human interactions access to uncountable numbers of people at the click of a button. But what are the potential pitfalls of internet-based research?

The issue is the focus of a talk by Bronwyn Williams, professor of English and director of the University Writing Center at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, at this month’s conference on Methodology and Ethics for Researching the Digital University, organised by the Society for Research into Higher Education.

“We all know that one of the great advantages of online technologies is the ability to contact people from a wide range of locations quickly and communicate with them easily,” Professor Williams told Times Higher Education.

Yet this type of contact is not without its challenges. “Potential cross-cultural and multilingual misinterpretations may be less easily recognised than if you were physically in the different locations,” Professor Williams said. “Also, it can be easier online for someone to misrepresent his or her identity to a researcher, so care has to be taken to assure the authenticity of the identity of the person with whom you’re communicating.”

One of the most challenging issues, however, is the “evolving understanding of public and private communication online”. Professor Williams explained: “While some people would argue that anything posted online in a form that anyone in the public can read has engaged in an act equivalent to publication and can be quoted in the same way we would quote a book or an article, it is also clear that many people engaging in communication online are doing so in close-knit communities and, as such, are assuming the communication will stay within the community.”

He gives an example of someone in an online support group for people with a particular illness as someone who might not be expecting those posts to be quoted and reused in a different context.

“Such an online context is less like publishing an article and more like people having a private conversation in a public coffee shop,” he explained. “We are clearly in the process of trying to figure out how to approach and navigate such situations…[and] I think the issue of privacy and the use of online data will remain an important issue of research ethics for some time to come.”

The use of digital approaches to publishing raises other ethical concerns too, Professor Williams said – particularly when researchers start to include video or sound recordings in their work.

“If a researcher publishes a digital article with video of participants, it provides a different and potentially richer context of that research. Yet it also may make the participants easier to identify if safeguards aren’t taken,” he explained.

Despite the dangers, the ease of communication provided by digital media is something that researchers should be taking advantage of, he added.

“People often come together in online spaces from all over the world, and that creates rich opportunities for research.”


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The University of West London has announced three new appointments. Julia Fionda, Khalid Hafeez and Morteza Alani have been made head of the Ealing Law School, dean of the Claude Littner Business School and head of the School of Computing and Technology, respectively.

Jason Whittaker has been appointed head of the University of Lincoln’s School of English and Journalism. Professor Whittaker joins from Falmouth University where he held posts including associate dean for research and innovation, and interim director of the School of Writing and Journalism.

The University of York has announced its first professor of nuclear physics theory. Jacek Dobaczewski, who currently has a part-time role as a distinguished professor at Finland’s University of Jyväskylä, will begin part-time at York before moving full-time in January 2018.

Gavin Screaton has taken up his new position as dean of the Faculty of Medicine at Imperial College London. Professor Screaton, who took up his position at the beginning of March, was previously vice-dean (academic development) in the same faculty.

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