Blog for Socy 676

Is Ethical Digital Research Possible?

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.



  1. meyersbcc

    Great write up. I will comment regarding each section.
    -I like that you comment you made regarding the compilation of data about an individual without their knowledge- and I will add consent, because both are central concern of big data and ethics involved- mainly protections and privacy. Also, as you mentioned, and to many social scientists it is their focus- that big data be used to better understand social processes that can then benefit others.
    -It is good that you included in IRB section the statement regarding the participant being engaged and aware that the research is being conducted. The video we watched also mentioned the point that in order for individuals to feel better about how their data is being used that there is a sense of transparency and awareness. I believe that more people would be okay with how their data is being used if they were aware of it happening and there was transparency about what the data was being used for.
    -Great points regarding the public nature of digital spaces-especially social media spaces. The internet and digital resources such as social media sites were developed with limited regulation and policing in mind- the idea was to be able to transmit data with few to no regulations. Now that social media and the internet allow that we have had to step back and say “Is this actually the best idea?”, and companies, organizations, etc. are having to answer that questions either on their own or collectively. The interesting questions behind much of dig data is “Whose” it is actually. Persons put themselves out there on social media and create digital footprints with purchasing habits etc. but then when their security is compromised and/or they are harassed the often want to blame the provider- there needs to be a much greater level of digital literacy if we want to keep internet based services and social media sites relatively untouched but want to be protected as well.
    -You added some effective considerations required by IRB in order to best ensure the minimum level of harm to participants- and the one’s you included all occur before research is even conducted.

  2. janniep

    Hi Eric,
    Great responses! I wanted to comment and ask you: is it really up to the person to protect themselves in digital spaces or should the digital platforms take responsibility and be transparent about what information (data) is stored and where it goes?

    • everingtone

      You brought up a good point. Yes, while social media platforms should be transparent about what information is being stored and what they are doing with it, users should also be aware that stuff that they say online becomes public when they click post.

      • Alice Quach

        Hi Eric,
        I like that you give an example of how people can protect themselves in digital spaces and platforms. Do you know of any other sites like DuckDuckGo? I also agree that if a person doesn’t know that their digital data is being used in a scientific study, they are not really a participant because they did not exactly consent.

  3. digitalsocyprof13

    I love these comments here, especially on the digital public spaces and right to privacy. Even our DuckDuckGo websites are not necessarily exempt from data mining as third party cookies from Microsoft or the web browser we are using to access the search sites may be tracked. One way to fix this issue is to download TOR (the Onion Router), which will cloak your IP address through several various servers throughout the world. People often use it to visit areas of the Dark Web, but also for more benign reasons such as want to browse without annoying cookies. The only problem with this is that many websites won’t allow people to use TOR because it prevents data mining. Further, thanks to an obscure Supreme Court ruling in 1972, by law all the information that is collected by third-party companies, whether it is your phone company or your internet service provider, are not consider the consumers. They are technically the owners of these records. Thus, the ubiquitous collection and keeping of information is not illegal. This leaves ethics in the eye of the beholder in many ways. Thanks for commenting.

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