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An investigation into the relationship between online behaviour and collective action

Case Study: Ethical considerations for collective action research

Dr Olivia Brown
Dr Olivia Brown, Lecturer in the School of Management, reflects on her research into online behaviour and collective action

Dr Olivia Brown, School of Management, focuses on the research ethics of a study to explore the relationship between online communications and offline collective action.

About our study

In an ongoing study, we aim to explore the relationship between online communications and offline collective action. We plan to recruit 40 teams of 4-5 students and instruct them to form a 7-day campaign to tackle climate change. Students will be informed that they must communicate about their plans for collective action via ‘Slack’ (an online messaging application). They must provide evidence to the research team of any actions taken. Data collected will include: (i) a pre-study questionnaire; (ii) all online communications data for each team; (iii) records of any collective action taken by the group and (vi) a post-study questionnaire.

Ethical issues to consider

  • Duty of care
  • Consent of participants
  • The right to withdraw
  • Using information from social media
  • Anonymity of participants
  • Risks for the researchers
  • Data security/storage
  • Geographic location (of data storage of the ‘Slack’ application)

Mitigating actions

  • Obtaining ethical opinion
  • Consultation with legal team at the University
  • Risk assessing to ensure duty of care to participants and to researchers
  • Ensuring that participants are informed, and documentation is clear
  • Creation and maintenance of a Data Management Plan

Lessons learnt

We had challenges surrounding the legal implications of “approving” or “disapproving” potential collective actions. We originally included a detail in the design of the study that would require students to report any climate activism to us prior to carrying it out. We thought this would be the best way to ensure that the students did not engage in any illegal or inappropriate actions (e.g., chaining themselves to a tree/blocking a road). However, we were advised by PREC to speak with the University legal team about this. This was incredibly useful; it was made clear to us that we did not have legal qualifications to issue any kind of legal advice. This helped me to understand the potential difficulties of providing formal approval for actions and the potential challenge this would create, with liability for myself and/or the University.

If you intend to use online data, especially data that comprises messaging between individuals, the data management plan and information sheet will take a long time to complete. I work with digital data regularly, but this project required additional considerations as we were also collecting survey data directly from participants themselves. Time and care was taken in developing our data management plan to ensure we conformed to GDPR guidance as well as respecting the privacy of participants.

For a research project such as this, a lot of depth and detail was needed when completing the ethics form. This proved very helpful in ensuring that the design of the study was well thought out and therefore more likely to reach its intended purpose. It is important to always remain mindful of the ethical responsibility of actually being able to use the data that participants have produced. Having participants take part in lengthy research, only to realise the design is flawed, reflects poorly on researchers. Having time to think through all the detail at the start of a project is therefore very helpful.

Phrasing is extremely important, especially on information sheets and consent forms. Having other colleagues read this (in addition to ethics committees) is useful. You don’t want to tie yourself in knots or present an opportunity for careless wording to create ethical challenges later down the line.

Find out more about research integrity and ethics

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This case study, edited by Helen Friend, is part of a collection outlining the experiences of researchers from the University of Bath in relation to research ethics. The researchers describe the ethical issues that arose during their research projects, the mitigating actions they took and the lessons that they learnt. More case studies can be found here. We gratefully acknowledge support from Research England through the Enhancing Research Culture Fund (ERCP).