What Does Ethical Digital Research Mean?

Digital research consists of using online data to compile information on a subject or multiple subjects. In the second decade of the 21st century, a grand narrative is emerging that posits knowledge derived from data analytics as true, because of the objective qualities of data, their means of collection and analysis, and the sheer size of the data set (Markham et al. 2018). The problem with digital research is it can remove the human being from the research and compile data based on a person without their knowledge. To me, ethical digital research means using the data derived from a person is for the greater good. It can be used to solve problems, educate, enhance experiences and even make predictions. I believe for digital research to be ethical it should follow the criteria listed in the six categories of exemption of a research study to qualify for exemption which specifies the data was derived from does not put the person at risk or allows them to be identified.

The Internal Review Board

The purpose of the IRB is to assure that participant’s rights and welfare are protected during a research study.  They try to assure that the appropriate steps are taken by researches to ensure this. But, for big data research, most of the time the humans are not aware that their data is being used for a study. Yes, most of us are aware of analytics being used by advertisers to directly reach us but most people are unaware that data on them is being used to conduct scientific studies. Often, the ethic is engendered not directly through the actions of the researcher, but indirectly through the absence of questioning the validity of variables in a world that has long since discovered (Kuhn, 1962) that our basic paradigms about what things are, or how they work, are not naturally “true,” but an outcome of debate, persuasion, and other social interactions among scientists (Markham et al. 2018). The IRB’s measures are set in place to protect human participant’s in research studies, but if a person doesn’t know that their digital data is being used in a scientific study, are they really a participant? With the evolution of technology, I don’t believe the IRB is fully capable of protecting digital spaces or at least helping to keep members of a study who don’t want their data being used to be used.

Human Rights in Digital Research

Humans have a right to privacy. But, they give up that right when they go off of their private property and onto the publicly owned sidewalk or drive down the publicly owned street in their car. The same goes for the digital space, they give up their privacy when they post a thought on Facebook or tweet a feeling about a certain topic on Twitter. This makes it difficult to protect a person when they enter the digital space. If you search a topic on Google, that is being monitored and that data is being stored and used by analytics and even researchers can access that data. It is up to the person to protect themself in digital spaces. For example, It is possible to remain anonymous and have your right to privacy better protected by using different search engines than say Google or Yahoo. Duckduckgo is a search engine that emphasizes protecting searchers’ privacy by avoiding personalized search results. DuckDuckGo does not profile its users by previous searches and shows all users the same search results only based on key words in the search.  While using big data on people in digital spaces can affect their privacy, it can also be completely anonymous data that doesn’t affect them at all.

Protecting Subjects

Some things researchers can do to protect the subjects they use in research studies are:

  • Do not use children under the age of 18.
  • Do not identify their subjects unless they have permission from the subject.
  • Determine if any risk is associated with the study with the safety of the subject before conducting the study.
  • Determine that the data being used by the subject is for a good cause.