Week 5: CITI Training and Internet Research
I love the quote posted on the CITI Internet Training site: “The Internet, like any other society, is plagued with the kind of jerks who enjoy the electronic equivalent of writing on other people's walls with spray paint, tearing their mailboxes off, or just sitting in the street blowing their horns.”
Online communication is unique. It is unthreatening, in many ways, for the participant. In many conceivable studies, the participant could be absolutely anonymous to the researcher. This means two especially important things: 1) participants may be much more honest because they feel no threat of their information leaking—this is the “great advantage”; 2) participants may do, just as the above quote suggests, attempt to destroy the researcher’s objectives. There is a unique sense of empowerment on the internet—power to pose as someone else; power to defame and destroy; power to deceive. While these powers are certainly possible in the physical world as well, they are much easier to manage online. Thus, participants may have an uncontrollable urge to exercise this power.
I find it interesting, though, that with internet research an informed consent document can be waived if “study participation presents minimal risk of harm to the subject….” Who is the determinant of this? The CITI training didn’t elaborate, but I would hope that there is a board of reviewers, at the very least, that would help determine whether or not the research poses more than “minimal risk.” So many researchers are so adamant about what they are doing that they can justify just about anything.
The greatest issue appears to be privacy. While in the real world we may be able to generally classify private as “within a home or church,” online—where literally millions of people can view what a person does—could still be considered private. At least, intended to be private. Consensus has not yet arrived in this blurry area.
The issues brought up—researchers and participants alike using deception; underage participants; assessing risk in a complicated technological society; protection of data; and communication between researcher and participant—ultimately, though, like any other form of research, delve into ethical questions. How can we assure that the participant won’t be hurt mentally or physically? The researcher must always review these considerations before attempting to acquire information. And with the internet, they must be aware of technological hurdles and risk of leaking information.