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Researching Internet Communities: Proposed Ethical Guidelines for the Reporting of Results

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Communication researchers and social scientists are quickly discovering the value of data that exists in the postings of members of Internet e-mail, Usenet, and real-time groups. The ability to communicate with one's peers, no matter how esoteric the interests, is causing an explosion in the number of new virtual communities. The interpersonal dynamics of these groups are increasingly coming under the scrutiny of academic research. The publicly available archived records of Internet virtual communities are being analyzed for a wide variety of research interests. The ability to do naturalistic observations of group dynamics, as they are exhibited in these exchanges of text, has captured the attention of many researchers. The institutional review boards of major universities are granting researchers exempt or expedited (exempt from full review) status for this work, due to the public nature of the notes being analyzed. These studies often involve the lack of informed consent, where the group members under study are unaware they are being monitored. There is a potential for psychological harm to the members of these groups, depending on the way results are reported. This article explores the ethical considerations that must be taken into account to protect cyberspace participants. The guidelines proposed are based on the American Psychological Association ethical guidelines for use of human subjects in research. An explanation is offered as to how such guidelines can best be applied to the study of Internet communities. The constructs of Group Accessibility (the public/private nature of the actual cyberspace occupied by a group) and Perceived Privacy (the level of privacy that group members assume they have) are defined and proposed as two dimensions by which individual Internet communities may be evaluated in order to assure the ethical reporting of research findings.
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Keywords: ETHICS; GROUPS; INTERNET COMMUNITIES; ONLINE RESEARCH; PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION; RESEARCH METHODS; SOCIAL INTERACTION; VIRTUAL COMMUNITIES; VIRTUAL SUPPORT

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 01 June 1996

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