Exploring Academic Attitudes to the Ethics of Social Media Research

The following study is led by Chris Carter, and is running throughout November and December 2015.

If you would be interested in participating, please contact Chris at christopher.carter@nottingham.ac.uk.

Overview

You have been invited to participate in a face-to-face semi-structured interview that aims to understand the attitudes and experiences of academic staff at the University of Nottingham with respect to reviewing the ethics of research proposals involving, or related to, the use of social media data.

What you have been invited to do

This study is carried out as part of the ESRC-funded ”Citizen-centric Approaches to Social Media Analysis” (CaSMa) project at the Horizon Digital Economy Institute, University of Nottingham.

In the interview, we would like to ask you about your attitudes towards reviewing research proposals that relate to the use of social media, and any experiences that you may have had in reviewing research proposals of this type. We should emphasise that there are no right or wrong answers; we are simply interested in your honest views and experiences.

The interviews will typically last around 45 minutes. Participation in this study is completely voluntary and you are under no obligation to take part. You are free to withdraw at any point before, during, or after the study without repercussions, although please note that this will not be possible following any public reporting or publication of the study’s findings. Your participation is anonymous, and great care will be taken in any reporting of findings to ensure that you cannot be personally identified from your comments.

Your Data

With your consent, we would like to record the audio of the following interview so to ensure that the subsequent analysis is based upon accurate data. This audio will be permanently deleted as soon as it has been fully transcribed. Additionally, with your permission, selective quotes from the transcription may be included to illustrate points in any resulting publications, though these will be anonymous and great care will be taken to ensure that quotes cannot be attributed to you as an individual employee of the University of Nottingham.

All data collected will be confidential, accessible only to the lead researcher, Chris Carter, and used for research purposes only. All data collected will be stored anonymously and you will not be personally identified from your responses in any subsequent reporting of the findings. Your data (e.g. audio recordings, digital copies of notes) will be password-protected and accessible only to the lead researcher upon his personal computer.

If you would like more detail about the study, please read the information below or do not hesitate to get in contact with Chris at christopher.carter@nottingham.ac.uk.


 

Background Information

As social media sites such as Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter has become increasingly pervasive throughout society, there has been a surge in interest from academic researchers seeking to study the data produced by human users interacting with the technology. In particular, social sciences researchers are presented with unprecedented quantities of behavioural data that has been shared on online public platforms by citizens, and that are readily available for collection through data scraping, or ‘mining’, techniques.

However, as the popularity of social media research has increased, so too has the need to address pressing questions regarding the ethics of the practice. For instance, should all research using social media data require informed consent from users prior to conducting the study? Do studies using ‘big data’ sets need to enable participants to withdraw their contribution? Should data shared upon social media be considered as public? Indeed, is it even appropriate to apply human research ethics to studies that involve the study of social media data?

Although various sets of Internet-mediated research guidelines have been published in recent years, including the Association of Internet Researcher’s (AOIR: 2012) ‘Ethical Decision-Making and Internet Research’ and British Psychological Society’s (BPS: 2013) ‘Ethics Guidelines for Internet-mediated Research’ documents, there are currently no definitive answers for researchers to fully address these questions. Additionally, University of Nottingham’s own ‘Code of Research Conduct and Research Ethics’ (2013) does not currently provide any explicit guidance with regards to conducting research using social media data.

The key research questions underpinning the current research study are thus, how prevalent are research proposals involving social media data across the University of Nottingham, and what are the attitudes and experiences of academic staff members in relation to reviewing the ethical appropriateness of them?

The main objectives of the study will be to assess the prevalence of social media research across the University’s five academic faculties, outline current staff attitudes towards ethical issues relating to social media research, and identify any specific areas in which staff may need improved support when reviewing research proposals of this type. One particularly valuable benefit of the research is the potential for the findings to enable the University to become a leader in terms of promoting ethically responsible and innovative research practice when using digital human data.

To achieve these objectives, we are looking to interview academic members of staff at the University who hold the responsibility of reviewing the ethical appropriateness of student research project proposals and/or are members of their school’s research ethics committee.

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Citizen-centric approaches to Social Media analysis