Emerging Ethics Norms in Social Media Research

by Katie Shilton

Defining ethical practices for research using data from digital and social media communities is an ongoing challenge. This paper argues that we should learn from practice: that researchers working with open and online datasets are converging around norms for responsible research practice that can help guide IRBs or alternative arrangements interested in regulating research ethics. It uses descriptive ethics to suggest normative ethics.

Just because a community has come to agreement around particular practices does not mean that these practices are right. Outside deliberation is still needed; researchers will likely never be entirely self-regulating. But growing consensus among researchers provides guidance as to what researchers feel to be reasonable practice; a first step for understanding responsible conduct of research.
This essay draws on qualitative interviews with digital and social media researchers (Shilton & Sayles, 2016), as well as a survey of 263 social science, information science, and computer science researchers who use online data (Vitak, Shilton, & Ashktorab, 2016). The interviews investigated the challenges researchers experienced when collecting, managing, and analyzing online data. Analysis of the interviews reveals a diverse set of ethical challenges that push at the boundaries of existing research ethics guidance. The interview data also describes existing practices for navigating ethical quandaries, and documents resources that help researchers meet ethical challenges. The analysis of the data points to opportunities for review boards and ethics researchers as well as new debates to undertake as a community.