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Case study: ethical review for an internet-based research project

This situational case study is designed to aid researchers to reflect on situations that would pose challenges to research integrity and ethics.

The concept of business, technology, the Internet and the network. A young entrepreneur working on a virtual screen of the future and sees the inscription: Governance
Governance of research throughout the life-time of any project is key to ensure good research practice.

Dimitri is a second-year PhD student whose project has involved fairly conventional qualitative research and methodology, including some interviewing of contemporaries at his university and several other local higher-education institutions. The process of obtaining a favourable opinion from the ethics review body was straightforward.

Dimitri’s supervisor has recently been reading about new, internet-based research, and feels Dimitri’s project could be extended to include early-career researchers in other countries without the need to have face-to-face interviews. In addition to email, he could reach out to communities via blogging platforms and other social media, and so potentially reach a very large number of subjects. Dimitri’s supervisor is very excited at the possibilities and tells him to start the project.

Dimitri has also, however, been reading up on internet-based/internet-mediated research, and is aware that there are certain problems and constraints, and that some ethical considerations are different to those for face-to-face research situations.

All this leads him to believe that either a separate ethics form or an amendment to his original will need to be considered by one of the University's Research Ethics Committee. He also thinks that a favourable opinion on this revised application or amendment will need to be in place before data collection can start. He mentions this to his supervisor, who maintains that they can just go ahead. Dimitri starts to doubt his convictions, as his supervisor is a much more experienced researcher and he’s only a PhD student.

Questions for discussion

  1. Do you agree with Dimitri? Do you think there is a need for going back to the research ethics Committee?
  2. Do you think it’s always the case that senior researchers are more knowledgeable about research ethics issues than more junior researchers?
  3. What sorts of ethical issues are there with internet-based research that involves human participants?
  4. How should Dimitri deal with the situation?

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