ITForum Paper #8

Ethical Research in the Information Age:

Beginning the Dialogue

Lynne Schrum
The University of Georgia

"For them, it has become a public library, a mailbox, an intellectual bazaar and coffee klatch all rolled into a single electronic address." (McInnes, 1994, p. A1)

A newspaper recently used that description in discussing individuals for whom the use of electronic networks has become part of the social infrastructure of their community. It is now possible to communicate with people all over the world for social, professional, and educational reasons, and new notions of what constitutes a community are encouraging a change in commonly used research tools. Researchers who study communities or explore on-line communications are adapting their activities to reflect the current change in communications.

The impetus for this article came from a discussion at a qualitative conference during this researcher's session about electronic ethnographic research (Schrum, 1995). A lively interchange occurred, in which individuals expressed widely differing views. Several members of the audience felt that anything posted electronically was fair game for the researcher's lens and that gaining informed permission was not necessary, especially on comments posted to a listserv. Others felt just as strongly that online research required extra attention to ethical behavior.

As the number of researchers looking at the nature of electronic communications grows, it will become even more essential that our research community engage in a dialogue regarding the transfer of ethical standards to this new medium. This paper touches on the possibilities of on-line research and reflects on the traditions of ethical qualitative research within the context of electronic communications. It then offers suggestions for appropriate ways in which to conduct such research.

Qualitative methods "are a source of well-grounded, rich descriptions and explanations of processes occurring in local contexts" (Miles & Huberman, 1984, p. 15). Some consider the most important research instrument to be the researcher, and that a naturalistic setting is preferable to any other (Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, & Allen, 1993). These unique features of naturalistic research, the time spent with respondents, changes the nature of what we do. Noddings (1986) describes the ways in which qualitative researchers build trusting relationships with our respondents, and the nature of our desire to see these people as individuals, rather than as subject.

How then does one study these new electronic (virtual) communities, given that the researcher cannot easily share a meal? How does one find an ethical way into local context? One might describe these new ways of study as an amalgam, taking an ethnographic perspective, using interviews and participant observations, and intertwining this with electronic communications. Terms have evolved to describe the actions of these new researchers, such as electronic ethnographer, electronic participant observer, or tele-researcher. Regardless of the name, the task is similar, evolving, and not without difficulties.

What must a researcher do in order to be able to gather information from ongoing or archived listservs, electronic mail or informal electronic discussions? Can we expect that the same rules apply to this research that apply to research conducted face to face? What is the nature of our responsibilities? Researchers must address the question, "What kind of research activity in cyberspace would constitute a clear violation of professional ethics?" (Jones, 1994, p. 30).

Every qualitative researcher must create a delicate dialogical balance between "protection of the subjects versus freedoms to conduct research and to publish research findings" (Punch, 1994, p. 88). Stories abound of those who crossed the line between ethical and unethical activities, with the latter being those in which subjects were not even informed about their inclusion in the projects. Janesick maintains that the very nature of qualitative research, which brings the researcher in constant and personal contact with the participants, presents a "recurring ethical dilemma" (1994, p. 209).

The issues are discussed in detail in my more extensive article, and include asking what responsibilities and decisions does an ethical qualitative researcher, or perhaps any ethical researcher, have to take in order to ensure electronic research maintains the highest possible standards? Several recommendations have emerged from this researcher's experiences as an electronic participant observer and from gathering resources for this article. First, questions that could begin a debate include:

The list of guidelines at the end of this article will serve as a starting point toward the establishment of ethical guidelines.

Second, all members of the academic community, especially those engaged in research using or about electronic communications, need to understand the scope of constitutional communication rights. We "should provide the leadership in developing and adopting policies that maximize the freedom to express ideas and arguments" (Smith, 1994, p. 96). For if researchers do not take the lead, and develop ethical guidelines for themselves, others may decide to do it.

Third, it is incumbent on those who have embraced electronic communications, for collaboration, research, and interaction, to commit "to more serious participation in the process of dialogue and negotiation with other players in the national policy discussion" (Lyman, 1995, p 35). As decisions are being made, those with experience with both academic research and electronic communications must step into the debate. Branscomb, a communications lawyer, said that the conflicts that arise are, "indicative of the confusion surrounding legal concepts that have survived the test of time in the non-computer world but may not stand up to scrutiny in the electronic context" (1991, p. 157).

Electronic communication has changed the fundamental nature of the teaching, learning, and researching process for many of us in academe. Although the field changes almost daily, it is not too early to begin a dialogue that will support our efforts and establish our credibility well into the future.

Ethical Electronic Research Guidelines

These guidelines begin with an understanding that researchers seek to be ethical, honest, and inclusive. I refer readers to a variety of discussions on this topic which incorporate naturalistic inquiry, evaluation, critical theorists, and feminist perspectives (Erickson, 1986; Erlandson, Harris, Skipper, & Allen, 1993; Guba & Lincoln, 1989; Kincheloe & McLaren, 1994; Lather, 1991; Reinharz, 1992).


Branscomb, A. W. (1991). Common law for the electronic frontier. Scientific American, 265(3), 112-116.

Erickson, F. (1986). Qualitative methods in research on teaching. In M. C. Wittrock (Eds.), Handbook of research on teaching (pp. 119-161). New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.

Erlandson, D. A., Harris, E. L., Skipper, B. L., & Allen, S. D. (1993). Doing naturalistic inquiry. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.

Guba, E. G., & Lincoln, Y. S. (1989). Fourth generation evaluation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Janesick, V. J. (1994). The dance of qualitative research design: Metaphor, methodolatry, and meaning. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 209-219). Newbury Park, CA: Sage, Publications.

Jones, R. A. (1994). The ethics of research in cyberspace. Internet Research, 4(3), 30-35.

Kincheloe, J. L. & McLaren, P. L. (1994). Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (pp. 138-157). Newbury Park, CA: Sage, Publications.

Lather, P. (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. New York: Routledge.

Lyman, P. (1995). Copyright and fair use. Educom Review, 30(1), 33-35.

McInnes, C. (1994, December 28). Like library, free-net brings data to the masses. Globe and Mail, A1, A6.

Miles, M. B., & Huberman, A. M. (1984). Qualitative data analysis. Newbury Park, CA: SAGE Publications.

Noddings, N. (1986). Fidelity in teaching, teacher education, and research for teaching. Harvard Educational Review, 56(4), 496-510.

Punch, M. (1994). Politics and ethics in qualitative research. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of Qualitative Research (pp. 83-97). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications.

Reinharz, S. (1992). >Feminist methods in social research. New York: Oxford University Press.

Schrum, L. (1995, ). Qualitative research in the information age: Electronic ethnographic tools. Paper presented at the Qualitative Research in Education Conference, Athens, GA.

Smith, S. (1994). Communication and the constitution in cyberspace. Communication Education, 43(April), 87-101.

* [This short article is derived from a more comprehensive discussion, "Framing the Debate: Ethical Research in the Information Age," which will be published in the Fall, 1995 issue of the journal, Qualitative Inquiry, 1(3), 311-326]

Lynne Schrum
607 Aderhold
Department of Instructional Technology
University of Georgia
Athens, GA 30602

Phone: (706) 542-4159
Fax: (706) 542-4032

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