Ethical Research

    • What does ethical digital research mean to you?
      • Ethical digital research means practicing methods which abide by the Common Rule and standards set forth by the IRB.  The means following the same internationally recognized parameters for conducting research with human subjects. This essentially includes; 1.) informed consent 2.) ensure participants’ anonymity 3.) maximize benefits and minimize risk.  I think there is a tendency to think new technologies spring forth from nowhere are initially neutral and later tainted. Whereas new technologies should be seen as part of an evolutionary tree of technology, which are shaped by its creators. Cambridge Analytica and Facebook are examples of how not to conduct ethical digital research.  Data gathered in this case was done so without reasonably informed consent and seems to have maximized benefits for conservative megadonors at the expense of the European Union and America’s democratic system. What a time to be alive…
    • Given your knowledge of the IRB, do you think that they ensure ethical digital research as defined by you? Why or why not?
      • Yes, I think the IRB (at least VCU’s IRB) ensures ethical digital research.  My one caveat is that digital research methods (big data, machine learning, etc) are still in their infancy and there is a limit with which ethical methodologies can ensure outcomes.  VCU’s IRB includes aspects of research which can apply to digital research.  For instance, it differentiates between private information and identifiable private information.  Namely private information “ occurs in a context in which an individual can reasonably expect that no observation or recording is taking place, and information that has been provided for specific purposes by an individual and which the individual can reasonably expect will not be made public (e.g., a medical record)”.  VCU’s IRB even defines what does not constitute research (  As long as on-going adjustments are made to disciplinary and institutional practices defining ethical research, that’s a productive place to be.
    • Is it even possible to protect human subjects in digital research? Is there a point in digital research, particularly when examining ‘big data’, where we can truly say that human subjects aren’t affected? If so, what is that threshold?
      • I think it is worth unpacking some of the underlying ideas embedded within this set of questions.  Like research conducted before the digital era, determination of ethical practices was an ever evolving concept.  VCU’s IRB webpage includes documents updated within the last year. Ethical parameters should be considered living documents, shifting with our on-going relationship with technology and its long-term repercussions.  In this respect, I believe it is possible to not harm human subjects in digital research (rather than protect humans).
      • Subjects are always affected in digital research, because the borders separating digital realms of the private and public are blurred.  Our interaction with and use of networked digital technology makes it evermore difficult to determine informed consent, privacy, and ability to abstain without negative repercussions.  Ethics and Methods points to an unsettling aspect of machine learning and neural networks have moved beyond human cognition to the point that agency as we previously understood it no longer exists in relation to these opaque processes.
    • In my own research I will closely follow IRB standards as they reflect an ongoing dialogue with the changing nature of technology and its use as a reseach tool.
    • Sidenote: I was really excited to see Sarah Pink cited in the second assigned text. She is a visual anthropologist that deals with research methods using photographs.

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  1. Thanks for your post. I like your comment about how technology is changing and processes need to evolve in research in order to adapt to those changes and address the protection of research participants differently as the spaces where data is obtained changes. I agree that with the age of big data still evolving and being relatively new that IRB’s use best practices to protect research participants but with the evolving nature of how big data is produced and accessed it is hard to protect everyone-especially when many of the spaces data is retrieved from is considered by many to be public spaces. I like your comparison of the old and new- looking at traditional forms of how research is conducted and comparing that to new forms of digital research can provide insight both ways and help determine how to best protect participants.

  2. Megan,
    I agree that these ethical issues and IRB criteria for digital research must remain living documents. The evolution of digital research is happening so fast that what may be relevant today will not work for tomorrow. While VCU does have a solid IRB policy for digital research, there are some loopholes that put digital users at risk. For example, if a site is public and one pseudonyms the pseudonym then it can be exempted from IRB. Also data that have already been collected elsewhere (like another university) then brought to VCU for further research can be used without even filing with the IRB as long as the researcher pseudonyms the users’ pseudonyms. P.S. Sarah Pink rules.

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