A few weeks ago I put up a post about the research challenges in studying online communities, in which I suggested that online surveys are an essential but flawed tool for the study of communities that are largely defined by their internet rather than their physical presence. My post was in the context of the controversy over Lewandowsky’s analysis of data from online climate “skeptics,” but in contrasting online communities with marginalized or stigmatized groups, I implied that online surveys are part of a broader problem in research, dating from before the internet, in how to access people who are not easy to trace or very rare.
Today’s issue of the journal PLOS Medicine has an article about ethical considerations in online research, which is published in the context of online surveys of medical treatments and genome studies. The paper, available open access here, has a nice description of the types of bias that enter online studies, and also a discussion of the ethical implications that arise both from the nature of these biases and from the general properties of online surveys. They mention the possibility that data will be shared and the importance of telling participants, something which I suspect neither Lewandowsky nor the follow up survey at WUWT explained to their participants; they also mention the possibility of data sales and the additional complexities of obtaining consent from non-identifiable participants.
The article doesn’t make any revolutionary claims or present any strong judgments about whether online research is bad, good or better than other forms of research, but it does note the growth of this type of research, discusses its applicability and generalizability, and points out some of the ethical implications that arise from the ease with which people can conduct online research. I was certainly surprised to read the kind of data people are willing to exchange with online research organizations of the type identified in the article and I wonder if there is a broader problem here in that our technological ability to collect private and sensitive data from strangers has outpaced the community’s understanding of the risks and ethics of such practice. If the wash-up of the Lewandowsky affair has you wondering about the broader issues surrounding that type of research, then the article is certainly worth reading.